BP official says Gulf leak may persist into August

New attempt to contain oil comes with risk

Cleanup workers patrolled the coastline yesterday in Grand Isle, La. Coastal tent cities are being built to house workers charged with minimizing the damage. Cleanup workers patrolled the coastline yesterday in Grand Isle, La. Coastal tent cities are being built to house workers charged with minimizing the damage. (Win McNamee/ Getty Images)
By Ben Nuckols
Associated Press / May 31, 2010

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ROBERT, La. — After failing again to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP scrambled yesterday to make some progress in ending the spill that the president’s top energy adviser said was the biggest environmental disaster the United States has ever faced.

Six weeks after the spill, BP said its latest plan to cap the well won’t capture all the crude fouling the Gulf. And the relief wells being drilled, which are supposed to be a better long-term solution, won’t be done for at least two months.

“The relief well at the end of August is certainly the end — the end point on this game,’’ Robert Dudley, BP’s managing director, said on ABC’s “This Week.’’ “But we failed to wrestle the beast to the ground yesterday.’’

“The worst is that we have oil leaking until August, until these relief wells are dug,’’ Carol Browner, the White House’s energy adviser, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,’’ “and we will be prepared for the worst.’’

The relief well solution would come in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane season, which begins tomorrow. The crude probably won’t affect the formation of storms, but the cyclones could push the oil deeper into coastal marshes and estuaries and turn the oil into a crashing black surf.

Browner said there is more oil spilling into the Gulf than at any other time in history. “This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we’ve ever faced in this country,’’ she said.

Last week’s effort to curb the disaster — known as the “top kill’’ — failed after engineers tried for three days to overwhelm the crippled well with heavy drilling mud and junk 5,000 feet underwater.

And skepticism is growing that BP can solve the crisis. Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who leads a congressional committee investigating the disaster, told CBS’s “Face the Nation’’ that he has “no confidence whatsoever in BP.’’

“So I don’t think that people should really believe what BP is saying in terms of the likelihood of anything that they’re doing is going to turn out as they’re predicting,’’ he said.

BP hopes to saw through a pipe leading out from the well and cap it with a funnel-like device using the same remotely guided undersea robots that have failed in other tries to stop the gusher. Even that effort won’t end the disaster — BP officials have said only that it will capture a majority of the oil. None of the remaining options would stop the flow entirely or capture all the crude before it reaches the Gulf’s waters.

Engineers will use remotely guided undersea robots to try to lower a cap onto the leak after cutting off part of a busted pipe leading out from the well. The funnel-like device is similar to a huge containment box that failed before when it became clogged with ice-like slush. Dudley said officials learned a lot from that failure and will pump warm water through the pipes to prevent the ice problems.

The spill is the worst in US history — exceeding even the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster — and has dumped between 18 million and 40 million gallons into the Gulf, according to government estimates. The leak began after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in April, killing 11 people.

“This scares everybody, the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far,’’ Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said Saturday. “Many of the things we’re trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 feet.’’

He said cutting off the damaged riser is not expected to cause the flow rate of leaking oil to increase significantly.

However, Browner said yesterday on the CBS program that cutting the pipe could release up to 20 percent more oil than is currently spewing. That’s because engineers will cut off a kink in the pipe that seems to be holding back some of the gusher, Browner said.

Browner also said that how much oil the new cap can collect depends on how well it is fitted over the leak. Other analysts also have said installing the new containment valve is risky because of the bend in the riser pipe.

“If they can’t get that valve on, things will get much worse,’’ said Philip W. Johnson, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama.

Word that the top kill had failed hit hard in fishing communities along Louisiana’s coast, where the impact has been underscored by oil-coated marshes and wildlife. top stories on Twitter

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