Oil could spew until August, officials say

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)
By Steven Mufson and David S. Hilzenrath
Monday, May 31, 2010

As BP readied its latest fallback plan to stop oil gushing from one of its wells in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration and the company warned that the crude could continue flowing until August, compounding threats to coastal wetlands, fisheries and beaches.

White House energy and climate adviser Carol M. Browner said Sunday that the oil spill was "probably the biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced in this country" and that "we are prepared for the worst." On the CBS show "Face the Nation," she said that the "American people need to know that it is possible we will have oil leaking from this well until August when the relief wells will be finished."

Those two wells, which BP began drilling early this month, are expected to intersect the damaged one and seal it near the reservoir far below the seafloor. The first has reached 7,000 feet below the seafloor, and the second has reached 3,500 feet below the floor, but progress gets slower the deeper the wells go. With the arrival of hurricane season Tuesday, the drilling could be slowed if the rigs need to be evacuated during storms.

The grim assessment came in the wake of the failure last week of BP's "top kill" effort to stop the flow of oil from the damaged well by shooting heavy drilling mud into the hole.

BP managing director Bob Dudley, who also made the rounds of Sunday-morning shows, said on ABC's "This Week" that "the next step is to make sure that we minimize the oil and pollution going into the gulf." He added: "The main thing now is to contain it."

BP plans to saw off a bent and broken pipe attached to the five-story tall blowout preventer that sits over the well. The company will then lower a new apparatus that would funnel oil and gas to vessels on the sea surface. But until the new apparatus is in place, cutting the riser pipe will temporarily increase the flow of oil into the sea by 10 to 20 percent, because the procedure will remove a section of pipe where a kink is limiting the flow, Browner said.

4th fallback plan so far

Dudley expressed optimism about the latest fallback plan -- the fourth so far -- saying on CBS, "With this, we think we can contain the majority of the oil and gas."

BP and the Obama administration were also trying to contain the rising tide of public frustration as the oil spill comes to the end of its messy sixth week.

Drilling experts said they feared that BP's effort last week to stop the flow of oil and gas with heavy drilling mud might have done further damage to the well and the blowout preventer, possibly complicating the next effort to capture the oil and gas and bring them to surface vessels.

Some drilling experts said that the "top kill" effort failed over the weekend because the force of the oil and gas pushing up from the reservoir 13,000 feet below the seafloor was so great that it had shoved most of the drilling mud through the blowout preventer and into the sea.

Tadeusz W. Patzek, chairman of petroleum and geosystems engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said it was the "equivalent of six or seven fire hoses blasting oil and gas up, while two fire hoses were used to blast the drilling mud down. They never stood much of a chance."

Sources at two companies involved with the well said that BP also discovered new damage inside the well below the seafloor and that, as a result, some of the drilling mud that was successfully forced into the well was going off to the side into rock formations.

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