BP attempts risky oil fix

15Jan

BP has launched a complex, risky deep-sea operation to cap the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, under huge pressure to get it right this time and staunch the five-week-old spill.

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Shortly after winning final approval from US officials, the British energy giant announced the maneuver dubbed a “top kill” had begun at 1800 GMT.

But after several previous failed attempts to cap the oil, BP boss Tony Hayward has already downplayed hopes of success, cautioning the procedure has never been tried before at such depth and against such pressure.

He warned it was expected to take two days to complete the difficult operation to inject heavy drilling fluids into the oil flow and then seal it with cement.

The work being carried out by remote-controlled robotic submarines a mile (1,600 meters) below the surface aims to counterbalance the oil flow with the injected fluids, drowning the leak long enough to dump cement on top and permanently seal it.

The Deepwater Horizon rig, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast, exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.

Its fractured pipe has been spouting out oil from deep below the Earth’s crust for 36 straight days, creating a massive slick washing up along the Louisiana coastline and threatening endangered birds, animals and plants.

“It’s clear that this will be a transforming event in the history of deepwater exploration,” Hayward admitted, with BP only having managed so far to siphon up some oil daily via a tube inserted into the pipe last week.

President Barack Obama vowed Wednesday his administration would not rest until the leak is plugged, calling it a “heartbreaking” disaster.

“We will not rest until this well is shut, the environment is repaired and the cleanup is complete,” Obama said, ahead of his second trip to the Gulf Coast on Friday.

Obama, who offered “every resource necessary to put a stop to this thing,” is expected to announce tough new offshore oil regulations Thursday after receiving an Interior Department report into what has become one of the worst oil spills in US history.

In a hint of what might be in the report, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told lawmakers Wednesday: “There are significant enhancements that can be made with respect to the safety of outer continental shelf oil and gas development, and I think that is the way for us to go.”

Millions of gallons of oil has seeped into the waters, contaminating Louisiana’s fragile marshes and wetlands, although the exact amount of crude unleashed by the spill is unknown.

After efforts to plug the leak by putting a containment dome over the pipe, Hayward has only put the chances of the “top kill’s” success at 60 to 70 percent.

But energy industry expert Eric Smith, from Tulane University in New Orleans, told CNN he was more optimistic the operation would work, saying he was less concerned about the depths involved.

“I think it’s probably got a very strong chance of being successful. If I were a betting man, I would bet on it,” he said.

Smith estimated the oil was gushing out at a rate of 10,000 pounds per square inch, with the aim of the operation being to apply enough pressure to force “it back down into the reservoir” far below the seabed.

The new bid to cap the leak comes as BP admitted there had been at least seven failures and warning signs in the hours before the explosion that something was wrong.

“What we’re seeing here is a whole series of failures. We’ve identified… at least seven,” said Hayward.

A memo released by senior US lawmakers late Tuesday detailed three warning signs in the last hour before the explosion, including sudden, unexpected pressure rises and fluid leaks.

Officials are also readying back-up options but some, including the drilling of relief wells to divert the flow and allow the original well to be capped, could take several months.

Thanks to a live webcam which BP has placed close to the leak, the whole procedure was being witnessed live on US television, with news channels streaming footage of the oil plume rising from the broken well pipe.

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