Oil could spew until August, officials say

By Steven Mufson and David S. Hilzenrath
Monday, May 31, 2010; A01

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.

"We discovered things that were broken in the sub-surface," said a BP official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said that mud was making it "out to the side, into the formation." The official said he could not describe what was damaged in the well.

Documents released Sunday by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce point to problems BP was having drilling the Macondo well, although some of them date to 2009 when BP was using a different rig with different equipment. Some documents describe previously reported trouble BP was having controlling the well. The company later drilled a new well section, costing it more than $20 million.

The longer oil seeps out of the ground, the more politics are seeping into the public debate as people question why the oil industry and the government were so ill-prepared.

In an echo of the counting of days during the politically debilitating Iranian hostage crisis during President Jimmy Carter's administration, Jake Tapper on ABC introduced his program as "Day 41 of the Gulf oil spill."

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said BP "made enormous mistakes and probably cut corners." Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," Vitter also said the federal government has failed in its response to the crisis, "particularly with the effort to protect our coast and our marsh."

Last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) questioned the administration's reliance on BP's estimates of the volume of oil, which has been flowing into the gulf since a blowout set fire to the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which sank, killing 11 people.

Browner conceded on CBS that "BP has a financial interest in these numbers" on the volume of the leak. "They will pay penalties at the end of the day, a per-barrel, per-day penalty," she said. But she said the latest, increased estimates of oil flowing from the well were produced by an independent government review panel.

"At the end of the day, the government tells BP what to do, and at the end of the day, we will hold BP accountable for all of this," she said.

She also sought to portray the administration as in charge and engaged. She said an administration "brain trust" led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu urged BP to stop adding pressure to the well through the top-kill maneuver because "things could happen that would make the situation worse."

But she stopped short on CBS of saying that Chu ordered an end to the top-kill maneuver.

Pressed to give an example of administration influence, Browner cited the drilling of two relief wells instead of one. A BP official said that it was "not unusual" to drill a second relief well and that it "very likely" would have been done anyway.

But Browner said that "BP said we're going to drill one relief well. These are expensive wells for them to drill. We said that's not good enough. You're going to drill a second one."

BP has said it would take responsibility for damage from the spill, but BP chief executive Tony Hayward on Sunday disputed claims by scientists that large undersea plumes have been set adrift by the gulf oil spill.

The Associated Press reported that during a tour of a company staging area for cleanup workers, Hayward said BP's samples showed "no evidence" that oil was suspended in large masses beneath the surface.

"The oil is on the surface," Hayward said. "Oil has a specific gravity that's about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity."

Scientists from several universities have reported plumes of what appears to be oil suspended in clouds stretching for miles and reaching hundreds of feet beneath the gulf's surface.

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