Oil containment structure moves into position

The AP's Harry Weber reports from aboard the supply ship carrying the oil containment device that it's in the thick of the oil spill waiting for another ship that will help place the containment dome.
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

HOUSTON -- BP lowered a 100-ton steel box the size of a small townhouse into the Gulf of Mexico Thursday night in a perilous and technically challenging effort to capture most of the oil leaking from a damaged well 5,000 feet below the surface.

The box, tethered by cables to a crane on a barge, was expected to be lowered to the sea floor over more than four hours, a process that would not conclude until Friday morning.

If successful, by Sunday, the structure will contain 85 percent of the oil and gas from a leak in a ruptured pipe known as the riser, funneling it to the surface, where the gas will be burned and the oil will be transferred to barges or tankers. If the box fails, and other efforts also fail, oil could continue to gush into the gulf for more than two months, experts said.

At BP's U.S. headquarters here, hundreds of technical experts from major oil companies and universities were working in the company's third-floor crisis center, calculating forces and factors that might affect the operation.

"We've brought in the brightest minds and we are working around the clock to do this," said Bob Fryer, chief executive of BP Angola who returned to help with the crisis that began with an explosion April 20 on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

Half a dozen experts experienced with remote-operated vehicles watched a wall of video images from the sea floor as one remotely operated submersible used metal fingers to grab hold of and move a yellow transponder that was to help guide the giant box, or dome, to the proper part of the sea floor.

The silent drama played out underwater while a noisier drama played out on land. The Interior Department postponed plans for drilling or seismic testing off Virginia's coast. After visiting BP's office here, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the department would grant no new permits until at least May 28, when an investigation of the gulf accident is expected to be complete.

"I want to make sure that every question that needs to be asked is asked and answered," Salazar said.

He said that Shell Oil's plans to drill off the coast of Alaska would fall under the freeze.

Salazar also said that "no significant violations were found" during recent emergency inspections of other offshore drilling rigs by the department's Minerals Management Service.

Meanwhile, Gulf Coast states took precautions as pinkish rivulets of oil began to encroach on their shores. Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries closed shrimp harvesting areas west of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said emulsified oil has reached the state's Chandeleur Islands. "The oil is surrounding the Chandeleur Islands now," he said, adding that it has washed ashore in some places.

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