BP's three-day effort to throttle the leaking Gulf of Mexico 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," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles 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.
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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 cap onto the pipe. The cap is fitted with a grommet designed to keep out sea water 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 7-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 Gulf residents were 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, Adm. 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.
"This well is evil," moaned energy analyst Byron King.
As it became apparent Saturday that the top kill would not work, Gulf Coast residents took stock of the demoralizing situation.
"We're in for a tough time now," said Ed Overton, an environmental science professor at Louisiana State University, noting that one saving grace of the spill — its relatively slow progress toward the coast — will soon expire 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 disconcerting reports from BP with weary fatalism, saying: "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 St. Bernard Parish, said Saturday 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 believe 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."