The BP oil leak could be plugged permanently within a fortnight, US experts said yesterday.
Three months into the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a relief tunnel should finally reach the broken well by the weekend.
After several days of concern about the well’s stability and the leaky cap keeping the oil mostly bottled up, the US government’s representative Thad Allen said that engineers had concluded the risk of a bigger blow-out was minimal and were getting closer to pumping mud into the column to seal it.
“We continue to be pleased with the progress,” Mr Allen said in Washington, giving the go-ahead to keep the well cap shut for at least 24 more hours and possibly longer.
BP vice-president Kent Wells said engineers hoped to drill sideways into the blown-out well and intercept it at the end of this month. The relief well is necessary to plug the well permanently.
After that, they will begin the “kill” procedure, pumping mud and cement into the hole a mile underwater to seal it, which BP said could take anywhere from five days to a couple of weeks.
“Everything’s looking good,” Mr Wells said. “The relief well is exactly where we want it. It’s pointed in the right direction, and so we’re feeling good about that.”
Engineers are also considering shooting drilling mud down through the cap to increase the chances that the attempt to kill the well succeeds.
Seepage detected from the sea floor briefly raised fears that the well was in danger, but Mr Allen said that another well was to blame.
There are two wells within two miles of BP’s blow-out, one that has been abandoned and another that is not in production.
The BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and starting one of America’s worst environmental accidents.
Meanwhile, BP denied a report yesterday that its chief executive would leave soon.
A company spokesman said Tony Hayward, who has been criticised for his handling of the disaster, had the full support of the board and would stay in office.
The company has just announced £4.6billion in asset sales to help pay for the spill. It is disposing of interests in the US, Canada and Egypt to US company Apache.
BP plans to raise £6.5billion from asset sales in the coming year to help pay for damage claims and the clean-up related to the leaking well.
The company agreed – under intense pressure from US authorities last month – to set up an independently-administered £13.1billion fund for damage claims from the spill.