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Gulf driller to light up a cigar after job is done

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John Wright surveys the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Wright is drilling the relief well.

John Wright surveys the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Wright is drilling the relief well.

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — The man with pinpoint accuracy who is drilling the relief well meant to plug BP's runaway well is looking forward to finishing his mission and celebrating with a cigar, a dinner party with his crew and a trip somewhere quiet to unwind with his wife.

John Wright has never missed his target over the years, successfully drilling 40 relief wells that were used to plug leaks around the world. People along the Gulf Coast aren't the only ones hoping he can make it 41-for-41.

"Anyone who has ever worked extremely hard on a long project wants to see it successfully finished, as long as it serves its intended purpose," Wright, 56, who is leading the team drilling the primary relief well, said in a lengthy e-mail exchange with The Associated Press from the Development Driller III vessel.

"That is where my job satisfaction is derived."

BP began work on its primary relief well in early May to permanently seal the ruptured well. But about two weeks ago, around the time the company had done a successful static kill pumping mud and cement into the top of the well, executives began signaling that the bottom kill procedure might not be needed. Even the government's point man on the spill response, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, suggested that was possible.

Allen put that uncertainty to rest on Friday and Saturday, saying the relief well would be finished so the well could be killed. The bottom kill, in which mud and cement will plug the well from below the seafloor, won't be started until at least next weekend.

Wright said he would not have been disappointed if the relief well was halted, recalling the time his high school football team won the city championship in Houston in 1970.

"I never made a touchdown or scored a point, but I was proud to be part of the team that won and that I had done my job," said Wright, who has two daughters and three grandchildren.

The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and causing 206 million gallons of oil to spew from BP's well a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

And with shrimp season opening along Louisiana's coast Monday, uncertainties remain over prices, demand and whether oil from the disaster still lurks unseen beneath the water's surface.

Wright said he was part of a team that started planning the relief well in May, working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He has been on the DDIII rig nearly nonstop since June 19.

"Offshore, we sleep when we can and work when we have to," Wright said. "It is rare to sleep eight hours straight, unless we are on standby."

Wright said the BP well was the biggest job of his career, but it's only the latest in a long line of wells that began after he earned a graduate degree from Texas A&M University.

His work took him around the world, from Venezuela to Norway, convincing him this was how he wanted to spend his life.

By the mid-1980s, "I had developed an obsession that drilling relief wells and working on blowouts is what I wanted to do with my career," he said.

The work on the BP well has been an intense stop-and-go project, with Wright drilling only a short distance at a time so his team can then do tests to make sure he's still on target. If not, the crew adjusts the drill's trajectory before restarting.

To date, he and his team have drilled nearly 18,000 feet — more than three miles. The grapefruit-sized drill bit is about 50 feet from their target, which is less than half the size of a dart board. The unusual depth, the relative weakness of the rock and the high pressure in the well have made the task challenging.

The planning was equally arduous for what Wright says is one of the most complex jobs he's ever worked on. One team had to figure out where Wright needed to drill to kill the well — and another had to work out how to get there.

"In general the shallower the intersect the harder it is to kill, the deeper the harder and costlier it is to intersect," Wright said.

More difficult than the work, Wright said, is getting everyone to agree on how to do things. The process has often been slowed with so many officials from BP and the federal government involved.

"Many additional hours in meetings and preparing justifications are necessary to get a consensus than normally would be required on a lower profile blowout response operation," he said.

Wright, who is not a BP employee but is working on a contract basis, is senior vice president of technology for Houston-based Boots & Coots International Well Control Inc. Boots & Coots bought Wright's company in 2009, and Wright became vice president as part of the sale.

Wright and his crew have spent what little free time they have using the rig's simple amenities — a gym, several TV rooms, a pool table, a smoking room and a card room. Most of the workers kill time reading books or watching movies on laptops.

The sleeping quarters — mostly two-man rooms with a toilet, shower and TV — are far better than the accommodations on other jobs. Wright recalled that many times, as many as 14 people share a room, toilets and showers.

"In one case I slept for two months on a couch in the wheelhouse with a blanket over my head," Wright said.

Things are more comfortable back in Wright's native Houston, where he plans to go after the work is done. He and his wife spend time there when they're not on their ranch in Texas hill country.