By Joel Achenbach
Saturday, May 15, 2010; 6:11 PM
An attempt to use a mile-long tube to capture most of the oil gushing from a pipe at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico failed on the first try, but the tube could be in place by Saturday night, BP said.
The "riser insertion" tactic, which gained support from BP engineers only in recent days, is akin to inserting one straw into another straw. The goal is to contain the oil in the main riser pipe before it reaches open water, where natural gas quickly combines with the water to form slushy methane hydrates that have complicated previous attempts to contain the leak.
But the effort ran into mechanical trouble on the first stab, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said. Giving few details, he said there was a problem connecting a 5,000-foot string of pipe to the "tool" being inserted into the damaged pipe. The tool was retrieved by a surface ship and an adjustment was made, Suttles said.
"It was just the mechanical act of trying to take this 5,000-foot-string of pipe and trying to connect it to this tool," he said.
The engineers resumed the effort Saturday afternoon.
With approval from federal officials, BP resumed the spraying at depth of chemical dispersants. The chemicals break the oil into smaller pieces, and Suttles said the use of the chemicals at the source of the leak is preferable to applying the chemicals more broadly at the surface.
"It should mean there's much less oil on the surface, which means our total dispersant usage should be able to drop significantly," he said.
Meanwhile, top Obama administration officials demanded "immediate public clarification" on Saturday from BP chief executive Tony Hayward over the company's intentions to pay costs associated with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"The public has a right to a clear understanding of BP's commitment to redress all of the damage that has occurred or that will occur in the future as a result of the oil spill," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in a letter to Hayward.
"Therefore, in the event that our understanding is inaccurate, we request immediate public clarification of BP's true intentions," Salazar and Napolitano said in the letter.
The spill might prove to be one of the most devastating environmental disasters the United States has ever faced, Salazar and Napolitano wrote in the letter, released to the media on Saturday and dated May 14.
There have been questions about the implications of the current U.S. law, which limits energy companies' liability for lost business and local tax revenues from oil spills to $75 million.
Salazar and Napolitano cited repeated statements by company executives that BP was taking responsibility for the spill and would cover spill-related costs.
"Based on these statement, we understand that BP will not in any way seek to rely on the potential $75 million statutory cap to refuse to provide compensation to any individuals or others harmed by the oil spill," they wrote.