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BP says effort to plug well 'proceeding as planned,' but success still uncertain

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; A01

The "top kill" is underway, success uncertain. BP engineers are pumping mud at a furious rate into the damaged blowout preventer that sits on the uncapped well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The hazardous-but-high-reward maneuver comes five weeks into the oil spill crisis amid an intensifying atmosphere of political recrimination that has spread from the Gulf Coast to the White House and Congress.

The early bulletins on the top kill were encouraging. "The operation is proceeding as we planned it," BP chief executive Tony Hayward said Wednesday evening, adding that it would be 24 hours before BP knows if the well is dead.

The billowing plumes of effluent from cracks in the top of the riser pipe no longer look like oil and gas but have a distinctly muddy appearance. "What you've been observing out of the top of that riser is most likely mud. We can't fully confirm that because we can't sample it," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said at a news conference Wednesday night. Speaking cautiously, he noted that if all goes as hoped, the well could be cemented shut by Thursday night.

President Obama, in a news conference Thursday, will outline tougher rules and regulations of the oil drilling industry and suspend exploratory drilling in the Arctic until at least next year, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made. This will delay a controversial drilling effort by Shell this summer in the seas off northern Alaska. The moves come after a 30-day review of oil drilling that Obama ordered when the crisis began.

BP officials, having studied pressure readings, finally pulled the trigger on the top kill at 2 p.m. The world could follow the top kill via live video feeds from robots on the seafloor. It was strikingly similar to watching an Apollo moon landing: grainy images of unfamiliar technology in an alien landscape.

The procedure pumps heavy drilling mud from a ship on the surface down to the seafloor and into the five-story blowout preventer atop the well. If all goes as planned, the mud will slide about 2 1/2 miles down to the bottom of the well bore, rendering the well "static." Engineers would follow up with cement plugs to seal the well permanently.

Much could go wrong. The pressure of the injected mud could damage the blowout preventer and exacerbate the leaks. The mud will go wherever it can, and not necessarily where the engineers would prefer.

"There's a hole, but it's kind of like pushing toothpaste through an obstacle course," said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

"I feel for the guys who are doing it, the people whose hands are actually on the throttles there," said energy analyst Byron King. "It's like doing brain surgery using robots under a mile of water with equipment that's got 30,000 horsepower of energy inside of it."

Millions of gallons of oil, and possibly tens of millions, have leaked into the gulf since the April 20 explosion and fire that killed 11 crew members on the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which sank two days later.

Oil has touched 84 miles of Louisiana's ragged shoreline and envelops the crow's foot of the Mississippi River delta. The oil trajectory forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that some of the oil has been captured by the gulf's Loop Current and by noon Friday could spread approximately as far south as, but considerably to the west of, Key West, Fla.

Traveling in Fremont, Calif., Obama said Wednesday that the passage of energy legislation has become more urgent because of the oil spill, which he called "just heartbreaking." Speaking to an audience of employees at a solar-panel manufacturing plant, Obama said the spill underscores the need to shift from fossil fuels to solar, wind and other types of power. He noted the great depth at which the Deepwater Horizon rig had drilled the now-leaking well.

"With the increased risks and increased costs, it gives you a sense of where we're going," Obama said. "We're not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use."

After his news conference Thursday, the president is scheduled to receive a briefing on the hurricane season forecast. Officials overseeing the oil spill have said they are worried that hurricanes could slow or halt future efforts to stop the leak, contain the damage and clean up the water. Obama flies to the gulf Friday.

Also Wednesday, new details emerged about the hours leading up to the fatal blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig. At a briefing for reporters in Washington, BP's head of safety and operations, Mark Bly, and other company officials detailed a cascade of breakdowns and mistakes before the accident. For example, BP's chief representative on the rig knew about an abnormal increase in pressure in the drill pipe, an indication that gas was probably in the pipe when it shouldn't have been. That representative, however, never called the Houston office for advice, despite the indications of trouble and differences between him and the top official there from Transocean, the company that owned the rig.

Moreover, the BP officials said, rig workers should have known oil or gas was in the drill pipe because when they were replacing drilling mud with seawater, they replaced 775 barrels of mud with only 352 barrels of water.

Meanwhile, at an official inquiry into the blowout in Kenner, La., the Deepwater Horizon's chief mechanic said he had witnessed a dispute between a BP official and rig workers. The dispute, mechanic Doug Brown said, was over whether to replace heavy drilling fluid in the well with lighter seawater. The rig workers didn't want to, he said, but the "company man" from BP overruled them: "This is how it's going to be."

Brown said the top Transocean official on the rig grumbled, "Well, I guess that's what we have those pinchers for," which he took to be a reference to devices called shear rams, crucial equipment on the blowout preventer that can slam a well shut in an emergency.

In addition, the Associated Press obtained witness statements given to the U.S. Coast Guard that described moments of indecision on the rig as workers waited for official approval before activating the blowout preventer. When they finally did, the AP said, there was no hydraulic power to operate it.

In Washington, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who led the month-long emergency review ordered by Obama, used a congressional hearing Wednesday to blame the Bush administration for what he called a "reprehensible" culture that developed within the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Interior Department that issues permits for offshore oil drilling.

"Unlike the prior administration, this is not the candy store of the oil and gas kingdom," Salazar said before the House Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.) lamented, "We want to put some people in jail perhaps, but putting people in jail does not undo the damage that was done."

Staff writers Perry Bacon, Juliet Eilperin, David Fahrenthold, Steven Mufson, Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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