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

By Joel Achenbach and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 30, 2010; A01

It is the well that will not die.

BP's three-day effort to throttle the leaking gulf oil well with multiple blasts of heavy mud has failed. The attempted "top kill" of the well was abandoned late Saturday afternoon, leaving the huge Macondo field deep beneath the sea floor once again free to pump at least half a million gallons of crude a day into the gulf.

"I can say we tried. But what I can also say is this scares everybody, the fact that we can't make this well stop flowing, or haven't succeeded in that so far," Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, said in a late-day news conference.

"There's no silver bullet to stop this leak," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said.

The top kill -- a term most Americans had never heard until it became part of the new national vocabulary along with "blowout preventer," "containment dome" and "junk shot" -- had been seen as the best hope for turning the oil spill into something finite in volume. Now BP must fall back on a containment strategy in the near term, hoping to capture as much oil as possible.

Sitting on the sea floor and awaiting deployment is a new containment dome, what the company calls the Lower Marine Riser Package cap. With robotic submarines, the company will sever the leaking, kinked riser pipe that emerges from the top of the blowout preventer, the five-story-tall contraption on top of the wellhead. Then engineers will guide the LMRP cap onto the pipe. The cap is fitted with a grommet designed to keep out seawater and prevent the formation of slushy methane hydrates that bedeviled an earlier containment dome effort. The cap procedure will take four to seven days, officials say.

"This operation should be able to capture most of the oil," Suttles said. "I want to stress the word 'most,' because it's not a tight, mechanical seal."

After that, the company could place another blowout preventer on top of the existing one. Meanwhile two drilling rigs at the surface continue to drill relief wells. That's a long-term strategy that requires engineers to hit a seven-inch target, the bottom of the leaking well, 3 1/2 miles below the surface of the gulf. The first of the two relief wells to hit the target will send a massive dose of cement to seal the leaking well.

That will not be until August, BP predicts.

Saturday's news was hardly a shock, given the doubts expressed by engineers and even by BP itself about whether it's possible to kill a well 5,000 feet below the surface and accessible only with robotic vehicles. But the gulf was still hoping for good news. After BP executives began the top kill Wednesday, chief executive Tony Hayward said the effort was proceeding as planned. Then the national incident commander, Thad Allen, gave news media interviews Thursday and Friday suggesting that the effort was going well. As he put it, "We'll get this under control."

The well had other ideas. It ceased to spew oil only when it was force-fed the drilling mud. When the pumping stopped, the well returned to form, churning out oil and gas. It was like hitting a Bozo punching dummy -- it goes down, then springs back up. Though some might prefer the analogy of the slasher-movie villain who always comes back for the sequel.

"This well is evil," moaned energy analyst Byron King.

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."

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