Page 2 of 2   <      

As 'top kill' effort fails, BP must fall back on oil spill containment strategy

BP's 'top kill' operation has failed to plug the oil leak in the Gulf. The company is now planning to cut off the damaged riser from which the oil is leaking and cap it with a containment valve. (May 29)

President Obama on Saturday called the calamity in the gulf "as enraging as it is heartbreaking."

As it became apparent that the top kill would not work, coastal residents took stock of the demoralizing situation.

"We're in for a tough time now," said Ed Overton, environmental science professor at Louisiana State University, noting that one saving grace of the spill -- its relatively slow progress toward the coast -- will fade as more and more of the dark slick reaches shore.

Despite BP's and the government's claims of a massive defense effort -- "the battle offshore, we're winning that battle," Suttles said Friday -- far more resources will be required to deal with the coming slick, Overton said.

"We've got to get more vessels. We don't need 1,300, we need 10,000," Overton said. "Now's the time to stop being optimistic and get the assets out there."

John Tesvich, head of the state Oyster Task Force, reacted to the reports from BP with weary fatalism: "For them to say that its success ratio was 60 to 70 percent, for a company that's trying to spin everything as positive as it can, that probably means they knew it wasn't likely to have an effect. And that's what's being borne out now. It now looks likely that this will be an ordeal -- that the oil will be spewing most of the summer."

Wayne Landry, parish council president in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, said that local communities are going to take a more aggressive and independent approach to fighting the effects of the spill rather than rely on BP or the federal government. He and other leaders from parishes and counties in Louisiana and Mississippi have organized their own response, what they call the "coastal zone authority for recovery."

He lashed out at BP's decision to use dispersants that Landry and others think have undermined the miles of boom laid out to stop oil on the surface.

"Let's start getting at some of the hard, hurtful truths. We don't know what we're dealing with," Landry said. "It's unacceptable that BP can have this problem, can destroy our marshes, our estuaries, destroy our way of life and at the end of the day can still lie to us about how it's not as bad as anybody thinks. . . . Our people are furious about this."

The measure of the disaster can be seen in maps the government released that show the vast amoeboid-shaped slick that has gradually glommed onto coastal Louisiana as if trying to swallow the Mississippi River delta whole. The slick continues to have many manifestations, from silver sheen to red pancakes to orange emulsion to brown mousse. The fine print will note that scattered tar balls are not visible from the air.

Taking perhaps the starkest view of the events is Matthew R. Simmons, founder of a Houston investment banking firm specializing in the energy industry.

"You have to hire as many supertankers as you can find and pump as much of it into them before hurricane season. Once the hurricane's come, the game is over," Simmons said. "You can take a big tar mop and paint the Gulf Coast black."

The failure of traditional well-killing methods may also heighten the pressure on authorities to try unconventional approaches. Simmons, for example, suggests a military takeover of the whole operation, and possibly even an attempt to seal the well with an explosive device.

Allen, the national incident commander, dismissed the idea.

"My view is since we don't know the condition of that well bore or the casings, I would be cautious about putting any kind of kinetic energy on that well head," Allen said, "because what you may do is create open communication between the reservoir and the sea floor."

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company