'Top Kill' A Pivotal Moment For BP In Capping Oil Leak

As early as dawn Wednesday, BP will undertake what some say is a pivotal moment for the London-based oil giant to contain the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico -- a maneuver called "top kill." The procedure has successfully worked on above-ground oil wells in the Middle East, but has never been tested 5,000 feet underwater. But all previous attempts by the company to cap the spill have failed. And BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward has given the "top kill" maneuver a 60 to 70 percent chance of success. The procedure involves pumping 50,000 pounds of thick, viscous fluid twice the density of water into the site of the leak to stop the oil flow. If all goes according to plan, the well can then be sealed shut with cement.

 

As early as dawn Wednesday, BP will undertake what some say is a pivotal moment for the London-based oil giant to contain the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico -- a maneuver called "top kill."

The procedure has successfully worked on above-ground oil wells in the Middle East, but has never been tested 5,000 feet underwater.

But all previous attempts by the company to cap the spill have failed. And BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward has given the "top kill" maneuver a 60 to 70 percent chance of success.

The procedure involves pumping 50,000 pounds of thick, viscous fluid twice the density of water into the site of the leak to stop the oil flow. If all goes according to plan, the well can then be sealed shut with cement.

Through the early morning hours Wednesday, BP put equipment into place. A team of experts will examine conditions inside the five-story blowout preventer to determine how much pressure the injected mud will have to overcome.

Then, the company will perform diagnostic tests to determine whether the procedure can proceed.

A blowout preventer is a critical piece of equipment designed to shut down the well in the case of an emergency, but it has failed to do so in this case.

"Normally you'd spend months to do what we've done in days and weeks," BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said Tuesday.

At one point, BP said it would terminate the live video feed of the spill once the procedure began. But the company reversed course under pressure from President Obama, an administration official said.

Obama is set to visit the Gulf coast on Friday to review oil response efforts.

He spoke with Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Tuesday night to get the Nobel Prize-winning scientist's assessment of BP's top kill plans.

Chu has been leading a team of scientists in scrutinizing efforts to stop the leak and "providing expert advice and ideas to help better inform BP's approach and maximize the chances for success," the White House said.

During a speech at a fundraiser in San Francisco, California, on Tuesday, Obama said he initiated a review into "how it is that oil companies can say they know how to handle these problems and it turns out, actually, that they don't."

But he blamed more than BP. He also blamed the failure of the country to transition away from fossil fuels toward green technologies.

"We've been putting it off for decade after decade after decade and it is about time that we said to ourselves that we're ready to make a change on behalf of the future of our children and our grandchildren," Obama said.

BP's latest effort comes amid several developments Tuesday.

In Jackson, Mississippi, a poignant memorial service was held for the 11 workers missing since the Deepwater Horizon offshore platform exploded on April 20 and triggered the underwater oil gusher.

"Today we gather here as a community -- a community that none of us ever wanted to be a part of," said Steven Newman, president and chief executive officer of Transocean, which owns the rig.

Some of the missing men's families have sued BP and Transocean.

In Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, frustration boiled over Tuesday night as residents hurting financially from the spill confronted officials from BP and the Coast Guard at a tense town hall meeting.

"Everything is dying," one woman said. "How can you honestly tell us that our Gulf is resilient and will bounce back, because not one of you up here has a hint as to what is going to happen to our Gulf. You sit up here with a straight face and act like you know when you don't know."

Fishermen and tour boat captains have sat idle in the parish as thick crude invades the state's shoreline. Fishing is a $2.4 billion industry in the Gulf states.

"There is absolutely nothing I can say from this podium that's going to make you feel better tonight," Larry Thomas, BP's manager for government and public affairs, told the crowd at Boothville High School.

"Over the next few months, BP is going to be tested to make it right with you for what has happened," Thomas said.

But that promise wasn't enough for many in attendance, who said they want a contract of sorts that specifically lays out a plan for compensation.

"Is it three months? Is it six months? What are you going to do to compensate the people that have lost their livelihood, maybe for many years? We want to know today," said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

Also Tuesday, a memo released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee said that BP had three indications of trouble aboard the doomed drill rig before the explosion.

The well unexpectedly spouted fluid three times in the 51 minutes before the explosion, and pressure on the drill pipe "unexpectedly increased" before the blast, the memo said.

It summarized preliminary findings of BP's own investigation into the disaster and said it "raised concerns about the maintenance history, modification, inspection, and testing" of the rig's blowout preventer.

Another report -- from the Interior Department's inspector general -- found that inspectors in the Minerals Management Service accepted meals and tickets to sporting events, such as the 2005 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl game, from companies they monitored.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who has ordered a widespread shake-up of the agency since the oil spill, called the report "yet another reason to clean house."

Carol Browner, the assistant to the president on energy and climate change, told CNN that she is optimistic about BP's attempt at a top kill.

"We want this to work and will do everything in our power to make sure it works," the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator said. "We need the BP technology -- they know how to operate the little robots, how to operate the vessels. But we're not relying on them."

Browner said the federal government will have its own experts analyze and evaluate the top-kill procedure.

"We want this thing shut down," she said.

If the top-kill procedure fails, BP will try to fit a second, smaller containment dome over the ruptured well. A first containment dome did not succeed in stopping the leak.

The company said it has other options, too: One of those would be to install a second blowout preventer at the leak site.

The blowout preventer did not function properly after the rig sank about 40 miles off Louisiana, and oil has been gushing into the Gulf ever since at an estimated rate of about 5,000 barrels a day (210,000 gallons). Some estimates have put the amount of oil spewing from the well far higher.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on Monday declared a fishery disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

A final, permanent solution to cap the well could take until August -- the estimated completion date for a relief well that is being dug on a parallel course with other efforts to stop the leak, said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point person in the Gulf.

By the time the leaking well is finally capped, the amount of oil discharged could be comparable to the total released in the Exxon Valdez environmental disaster 20 years ago, Allen said.

source : cnn