BP’s next plan: Cap oil gusher with ‘top hat’

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, May 10, 2010 21:31 EDT
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Days after failing to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with a giant dome, BP said Monday it will make a second attempt this week using a smaller version dubbed the “top hat.”

A four-story, 100-ton box was lowered Friday to the seabed to try to capture most of the oil and allow it to be funneled up to a ship on the surface, but it was rendered useless on Sunday when ice crystals formed in its domed roof.

BP experts believe the smaller “top hat” containment box would not suffer the same problem as it would not hold so much freezing cold seawater, and they are preparing to drop it into the inky depths to carry out a similar fix to what is unfolding as one the worst oil spills in US history.

The company’s chief executive Tony Hayward told reporters he hoped the smaller container would be in place “within 72 hours” and officials said it should be up and running this week after some last-minute modifications.

Hayward admitted the smaller size meant it “will be less efficient at capturing” the leaking oil than the larger dome, which had been expected to swallow up to 85 percent of the crude.

BP said its disaster-related costs have reached 350 million dollars since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast on April 22 following an explosion that killed 11 workers.

The pressure to plug the leak from a fractured pipe on the seabed is mounting as an estimated 210,000 gallons of crude spews into the sea each day, feeding fears of an environmental catastrophe.

With some 3.8 million gallons already in the sea causing untold damage to the ecologically fragile Louisiana coast, engineers are searching furiously for a quicker solution than a relief well that may not be ready until August.

In tandem with the “top hat,” BP is also preparing for a bizarre operation to inject golf balls, tires and other “junk” into the main leak, 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) down on the seabed, and then jam it up.

“We actually pump that material in and plug up the blowout preventer and follow that with heavy fluids followed by cement,” explained BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles.

The “junk shot” could be risky as experts have warned that tinkering with the blowout preventer — a huge 450-ton valve system that should have shut off the oil — could see crude shoot out unchecked at 12 times the current rate.

Eric Smith, an expert from Tulane University, told AFP that BP would have to force the mix down against upward pressure of more than 2,200 pounds per square inch of water pressure from the sea floor.

“You need a lot of horsepower and a lot of pressure,” Smith said.

BP also restarted Monday operations to stream dispersants directly into the main leak despite fears that the dispersants themselves could be harming aquatic life from the smallest microorganisms on up.

Officials believe two earlier trials of subsea dispersant succeeded in breaking down the oil into smaller particles that biodegrade instead of being left as chunky, thick globs that could choke wildlife and vegetation.

As the White House tries to prevent the political fallout from impacting on his energy agenda, President Barack Obama was meeting Monday with senior staff for a progress report on the disaster.

The US Congress kicks off a spate of hearings into the catastrophe on Tuesday, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar goes before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to discuss “issues in offshore drilling.”

Coastal state lawmakers, especially Democratic allies of Obama, have condemned his decision to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling, and want to know whether the disaster could, and should, have been averted.

Some lawmakers, citing the possible impact of the disaster on local tourism and fishing industries, have called for lifting oil companies’ liability for economic damages from a spill from 75 million to 10 billion dollars.

The US Coast Guard and the government’s Minerals Management Service launch a probe Tuesday into everything from the causes of the initial blast and the sinking of the rig to the ongoing efforts to mitigate effects of the spill.

Sheen from the leading edge of the slick has surrounded island nature reserves off Louisiana’s coast and tar balls have reached as far as the Alabama coast, threatening tourist beaches further east.

Sea life has been affected in a region that contains vital spawning grounds for fish, shrimp and crabs and is a major migratory stop for rare birds.

BP began drilling a first relief well on May 2, but that could take up to three months to drill — by which time some 20 million gallons of crude could have streamed into the sea and ruined the fragile ecology of the Gulf.

Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse
AFP journalists cover wars, conflicts, politics, science, health, the environment, technology, fashion, entertainment, the offbeat, sports and a whole lot more in text, photographs, video, graphics and online.
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