Accurate conclusions about what caused the blowout of BP's oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and the massive spill that followed will have to wait for a key piece of equipment to be raised from the seafloor and analyzed, a member of a federal investigative panel looking into the disaster said Monday.
Even then it could be a guessing game, said Wayne R. Andersen, a retired federal judge and the only nongovernment member of the panel.
"I'd say the key thing to this story is coming soon as the blowout preventer comes up," Andersen told The Associated Press. "Hopefully, we won't have to speculate after that is inspected, but we might. I am waiting suspensefully to see what the engineers say."
He also said that panel members have not been provided a copy of BP's internal investigation, which is ongoing, nor have results of other probes been released.
Everyone is going to have to wait a few more days for the blowout preventer to be pulled up from the seabed, however. High seas on the Gulf forced BP PLC on Monday to delay operations for up to three days.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the spill response, told reporters in a conference call that waves were 6 to 8 feet tall and crews were worried about the potential risk of suspending hulking pieces of equipment from a crane underwater while the waves were rocking.
He said it could be as late as Thursday before engineers begin to remove the temporary cap that stopped more oil from flowing into the sea in mid-July and the failed blowout preventer, which is a key piece of evidence in ongoing investigations. The cap will be stored on the seafloor nearby. It could take 24 hours to slowly lift the blowout preventer from the water.
A new blowout preventer will be placed atop the well once the failed one is raised. After that, the goal is to drill the final 50 feet of a relief well.
Engineers will then pump in mud and cement to permanently plug the well that gushed oil. The final plugging of the well was expected to start after Labor Day, but Allen said Monday that will be delayed as well because of the weather.
"We are in a weather hold right now," Allen said from aboard the Development Driller III vessel, which is the vehicle for drilling the primary relief well.
Allen said he also would be visiting the Helix Q4000, which is the vessel that will lift the blowout preventer and turn it over to a 12-person evidence team from the federal government.
Andersen listened intently last week during the fourth set of hearings for the joint panel of the Coast Guard and U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement. Another round of hearings is set for October.
"I really think everybody among the group is keeping an open mind," he said, noting that the blowout preventer is not the only issue investigators are interested in learning more about in the coming days and weeks.
"You want to look at the casing and the well below it if possible," Andersen said. "I would suggest we will not know what caused the explosion until we examine that casing below."
Congress and the Justice Department also are investigating, and various government agencies will be determining how much BP and others should pay in fines for the disaster.
The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 and sank, killing 11 workers and spewing 206 million gallons of oil from BP's undersea well. BP was operating the rig, which was owned by Transocean Ltd.
The leak was first contained when engineers were able to place a cap atop BP's well. Workers then pumped mud and cement in through the top in a so-called "static kill" operation that significantly reduced pressure inside the well. Officials don't expect oil to leak into the sea again when the cap is removed, but Allen has ordered BP to be ready to collect any leaking crude just in case.
The 50-foot, 600,000-pound blowout preventer — which was designed to prevent such a catastrophe — will be taken out of the water with the well pipe still inside to ensure the pipe doesn't break apart any more than it already has.
Keeping the blowout preventer intact is important because it is key to ongoing investigations into the cause of the disaster.