‘Top kill’ effort to staunch gulf oil leak unsuccessful so far

Posted May 29, 2010, at 4:42 p.m.

COVINGTON, La. — A risky procedure is failing to stop the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP said Saturday it is considering scrapping it in favor of yet another method to contain the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The comments from BP PLC chief operating officer Doug Suttles came amid increasing skepticism that the “top kill” operation — which involves pumping heavy drilling mud into a crippled well 5,000 feet underwater — would halt the leak. It’s the latest in a series of proposed solutions BP has tried — including a gigantic box placed over the leak and a tube inserted to siphon the oil away. The box failed after ice-like crystals clogged it, while the tube was removed to make way for the top kill after it sucked up more than 900,000 gallons of oil.

The top kill began Wednesday, and “to date it hasn’t yet stopped the flow,” Suttles told reporters at Port Fourchon. “What I don’t know is whether it ultimately will or not.”

If the top kill fails, BP would cut off the damaged riser from which the oil is leaking and cap it with a containment valve that’s already resting on the seafloor. BP is already preparing for that operation, Suttles said.

Since the top kill began Wednesday, BP has pumped huge amounts of mud into the well at a rate of up to 2,700 gallons per minute, but it’s unclear how much is staying there. A robotic camera on the seafloor appeared to show mud escaping at various times during the operation. On Saturday, the substance spewing from the well appeared to be oil, experts said.

Engineers may not know until Sunday if the fix is successful, and progress was difficult to measure from BP’s “spillcam” of mud, gas and oil billowing from the seafloor. Americans have been hypnotized as they watched for any sign of success.

Scientists say the images may offer clues to whether BP is getting the upper hand in its struggle to contain the oil, said Tony Wood, director of the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. If the stuff coming out of the pipe is jet black, it is mostly oil and BP is losing. If it is whitish, it is mostly gas and BP is also losing.

If it is muddy brown, as it was much of Friday, that may be a sign that BP is starting to win, he said. That “may in fact mean that there’s mud coming up and mud coming down as well,” which is better than oil coming out, Wood said.

The company, however, has cautioned that it’s difficult to gauge progress from the choppy video 5,000 feet undersea. Officials also have warned people not to read too much into any changes they might see on the live video feed, saying it also is not indicative of overall progress.

Bob Bea, a professor of engineering at University of California at Berkeley who has studied offshore drilling for 55 years, said late Friday that what he saw didn’t look promising.

He likened the effort to pushing food into a reluctant baby’s mouth — it only works if the force of the stuff going down is more than the force of what’s coming up.

“It’s obvious that the baby’s spitting the baby food back” because the pressure from the well is stronger, Bea said.

Things didn’t look much better Saturday as the well appeared to be spewing only a black plume, said Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute.

“They warned us not to draw too many conclusions from the effluent, but … it doesn’t look like it’s working,” he said.

President Barack Obama visited the coast Friday to see the damage, which began April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform blew up and killed 11 workers.

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