These photo mosaics were created by Stewart Long of GonzoEarth.com. These images were taken by Research Scientist Adam Griffith at the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. You can view all the photos at Stewart’s Flickr site.
PSDS research staff headed to the Louisiana coast a few days ahead of President Obama’s visit to Grand Isle. Adam Griffith was on the coast of Louisiana for two and a half days and met birders, news crews, and volunteers from various non-profit organizations.
PSDS Research Scientist Adam Griffith visited Grand Isle, LA from May 26-28. On the morning of the 26th, I arrived to the Emergency Operations Center in Jefferson Parish at 10:30 and obtained a media pass to access closed public beaches including Elmer’s Isle. Elmer’s Isle was heavily polluted with oil in the water and on the beach about the 21st of May. National Guard troops attempted to fill an inlet on the island and eventually succeeded on May 24th. Other than a large stockpile of sand being delivered by 18-wheelers from another location, little clean-up was occurring.
From Elmer’s Isle, we headed to Grand Isle State Park to walk out on the fishing pier. I was joined by graduate students from Tulane University in the Public Health and International Development Programs who were volunteering for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. They are attempting to map the oil spill from the air using balloons and kites and are working with grassrootsmapping.org to accomplish this. An interactive map conceived by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade allows users to report oil spill related incidents such as dead wildlife, oil on beaches, and oil on the water. View this map here.
In Grand Isle State Park, National Guard troops were deploying water berms, different from booms, from shore. Here we saw an oil sheen on the beach, but no thick gooey oil.
We concluded the day at the local marina where we met with Drew Wheelan of the American Birding Association and Richard Shephard who told us of terrible conditions on Isle Grand Terre including dead sea turtles and oil tide in the ocean. Tomorrow, I hope to check out this island with Jeff, a local boat captain.
AFP, June 1st 2010.
US officials said Tuesday they launched a criminal probe into the nation’s worst ever oil spill as BP voiced hopes of capping the six-week-old Gulf of Mexico leak soon.
“We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law anyone who has violated the law,” Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters in New Orleans. “We will not rest until justice is done.”
As shares in the British energy giant plunged Tuesday, losing 13 percent and wiping off 12 billion pounds (17.6 billion dollars) off its market value, Holder said the criminal probe began “some weeks ago.”
But he declined to elaborate on what kind of charges could be brought and against whom.
Holder was speaking after touring the region to witness the damage caused by the spill, triggered when an explosion ripped through the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, sinking it two days later.
“What we saw this morning was oil for miles and miles. Oil that we know has already affected plant and animal life along the coast, and has impacted the lives and livelihoods of all too many in this region,” he said.
US President Barack Obama also threatened to take legal action against those to blame, saying the government had an “obligation” to determine the cause of the “greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history.”
“If our laws were broken leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region,” Obama vowed.
BP’s chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the company now hoped to cap the rig’s fractured pipe on Wednesday, thanks to a new operation launched Tuesday.
“If everything goes well, within the next 24 hours, we could have this contained,” Suttles said in Louisiana.
But when asked later by Fox News about whether BP had broken any laws, Suttles replied: “I have no idea.”
By Chris McGreal, The Guardian
BP has challenged widespread scientific claims that vast plumes of oil are spreading underwater from its blown-out rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The denial comes as the oil giant prepares for a new operation to put an end to the worst oil spill in US history – which could see the leak get worse before it gets better.
The company’s challenge to several scientific studies is likely to put it further at odds with an increasingly angry Obama administration, which has accused it of playing down the size of the leak in an effort to limit possible fines.
BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, said it had no evidence of underwater oil clouds. “The oil is on the surface,” he 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.”
Hayward’s assertion flies in the face of studies by scientists at universities in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, among other institutions, who say they have detected huge underwater plumes of oil, including one 120 metres (400ft) deep about 50 miles from the destroyed rig.
BP’s claim is likely only to further anger environmentalists and the White House, which has grown increasingly suspicious of the company’s claims to be frank and transparent on developments. The president’s environmental adviser and director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, Carol Browner, has accused BP of misstating the scale of the leak.
“BP has a vested financial interest in downplaying the size of this,” she said on CBS television. “They will pay penalties at the end of the day, a per-barrel per-day penalty.”
Ed Markey, chairman of the House of Representatives environment committee, has also accused BP of underplaying the scale of the disaster and suggested that it may have a criminal liability.
“The fine that can be imposed upon them is based on how many barrels [pour in to the sea]. It could wind up in billions of dollars of fines,” said Markey. “They had a stake in low-balling the number right from the beginning. They were either lying or they were incompetent.”
In the White House, under increasing criticism for not taking charge of the effort to stop the spill, some officials are saying they have been misled by the company or kept in the dark at key moments.
The Politico website reported that the Obama team was incensed that the company failed to inform it for a day and a half after suspending the failed “top kill” operation to plug the spill using rubber tyres and mud.
The dispute comes as the company readies its latest effort to contain the flow of oil in to the sea, following the failure of top kill. The new plan involves an intricate operation to cut the top off the damaged riser that brought oil to the surface of the destroyed rig. The intention is to create a flat surface to which to attach a valve that would divert the oil into a pipe and on to a ship.
But slicing the top off the damaged pipe may result in oil flowing into the sea at a faster rate until the new valve is fitted. Even if successful, the operation would only limit, not entirely stop, oil from flowing into the sea. If this measure failed, BP’s best hope of halting the oil would remain the drilling of a relief well that would ease the pressure on the damaged one. But the US government has warned that the spill could continue into August.
The attempts to stop the oil flow have been given added urgency by the start of the hurricane season tomorrow.
Forecasters are predicting an unusually high number of storms over the next six months. If the oil is still spread across the sea, a hurricane is likely to disperse it over a much wider area and push it deeper into marshlands and other inland areas, making the environmental disaster even worse.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting between eight and 14 hurricanes this season, with perhaps a similar number of smaller storms.
The US military has ruled out taking charge of the operation to stem the flow of oil from the blown-out BP rig. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, today said that military chiefs had looked at the available equipment and concluded that “the best technology in the world, with respect to that, exists in the oil industry”.
A day earlier, the former US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said the military should step in because the crisis was now “beyond the capacity” of BP to stop.
By Clifford Krauss, John M. Broder and Jackie Calmes, The New York Yimes.
The Obama administration scrambled to respond on Sunday after the failure of the latest effort to kill the gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. But administration officials acknowledged the possibility that tens of thousands of barrels of oil might continue pouring out until August, when two relief wells are scheduled to be completed.
“We are prepared for the worst,” said Carol M. Browner, President Obama’s climate change and energy policy adviser. “We have been prepared from the beginning.”
Even as the White House sought to demonstrate that it was taking a more direct hand in trying to solve the problem, senior officials acknowledged that the new technique BP will use to try to cap the leak — severing the riser pipe and placing a containment dome over the cut riser — could temporarily result in as much as 20 percent more oil flowing into the water during the three days to a week before the new device could be in place.
“This is obviously a difficult situation,” Ms. Browner said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “but it’s important for people to understand that from the beginning, the government has been in charge.”
“We have been directing BP to take important steps,” including the drilling of a second relief well, she added.
The White House said that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would make his eighth trip to the region and that the number of government and contract employees sent to work in areas affected by the spill would be tripled.
But despite the White House efforts, the criticism also intensified. Colin L. Powell, who served as secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s “This Week” that the administration must move in quickly with “decisive force and demonstrate that it’s doing everything that it can do.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, appearing on “Meet the Press,” again criticized the administration’s efforts, saying: “We need our federal government exactly for this kind of crisis. I think there could have been a greater sense of urgency.”
The administration has left to BP most decisions about how to move forward with efforts to contain the leak. But Ms. Browner made a point of saying that the administration, led by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, had told BP that the company should stop the top kill. Government officials thought it was too dangerous to keep pumping drilling mud into the well because they worried it was putting too much pressure on it. BP announced Saturday evening that it was ending that effort.
BP engineers are now working on several containment plans, with the first being implemented over the next few days.
“According to BP, the riser cutting will likely start Monday or Tuesday,” the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said in a statement on Sunday.
Using submarine robots, technicians intend to sever the riser pipe on top of the blowout preventer, the five-story-high stack of pipes above the well that failed to shut off the leak when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. A funnel-like containment device will be fitted above the cut riser to draw the escaping oil through tubing attached to a drilling ship.
But BP officials acknowledged that there was no certainty that this attempt would work. Robert Dudley, BP’s managing director, appearing on “This Week,” also said that if it did work, some oil would still seep out until relief wells provided “an end point” in August.
The failure of the most recent effort — known as a top kill, which BP officials expressed great optimism about before trying it — has underlined the gaps in knowledge and science about the spill and its potential remedies. Ever since the explosion and the resulting leak, estimates of how much oil is escaping have differed by thousands of barrels a day. Both government and BP officials said on Sunday that they had no accurate idea of how much oil was spilling into the gulf.
“We honestly do not know,” Mr. Dudley said on “Meet the Press.” “We’ve always found this a difficult oil to measure because of the huge amounts of gas in the oil.”
“The one thing about this method that we’re about to go into — it will and should measure the majority of the flow,” he said.
Mr. Dudley said that the original estimates by the government and BP officials of 5,000 barrels a day were based on satellite pictures and that the current estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels was “issued without an actual flow measurement.” If the leak is not contained or slowed and continues at the higher estimated flow rate of 19,000 barrels a day until Aug. 20 — four months after the accident — it could amount to close to 2.3 million barrels spilled into the gulf.
After more than a month of diagnostic tests and the pumping of tens of thousands of barrels of drilling fluids — and everything from golf balls to shards of rubber — into the broken blowout preventer, engineers are still debating about what they think may be the inner contours of the five-story stack of pipes and how to best contain its leaking gashes.
In the end, all the mysteries of what went wrong and caused one of the greatest environmental calamities of history may not be known until the well is finally killed and the ill-fated blowout preventer is brought up from the bottom of the sea.
The final plugging of the well will have to wait until August, when the two relief wells are scheduled be completed. Those wells are being drilled diagonally to intersect with the runaway well and inject it with heavy liquids and cement. Work could be slowed by storms in what is expected to be an active summer hurricane season.
Officials from BP and the administration announced on Saturday that the top kill was a failure and had been abandoned, and that engineers were once again trying to solve the problem with a containment cap. A similar operation was tried nearly four weeks ago, but it failed because a slush of icy water and gas, known as hydrates, filled the large containment device, blocking the escaping oil from entering it. This time, engineers will pump hot sea water around the new, smaller device to keep hydrates from forming, and there will be far less space between the cap and the well for any hydrates that do form to flow in.
BP officials expressed optimism on Sunday about the new operation, though one technician working on the project warned that there were concerns that hydrates could again stymie the containment effort. The technician and outside experts also warned that by cutting the riser, the engineers may increase the flow of escaping oil.
Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, director of petroleum geoscience programs at the University of Houston, said that he thought BP’s next plan had a good chance of succeeding, but that there was also a risk of increasing the flow of escaping oil by 10 percent.
“Then it just makes the situation worse for longer,” he said, unless the containment cap succeeds in collecting a substantial amount of oil.
By Elisabeth Rosenthal, The New York Times.
“If we’ve learned anything so far about the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, it is that it contains surprises. And that means an operator needs depth, depth in terms of resources and expertise, to create the capability to respond to the unexpected. ”
These prophetic words came from a 2005 presentation by David Eyton, who was then vice president for BP’s deepwater developments in the Gulf of Mexico. Reprinted that year in a journal of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, the speech acknowledged that oil companies “did somewhat underestimate the full nature of the challenges we were taking on in the deep waters of the gulf.”
Still, Mr. Eyton expressed buoyant optimism that BP’s risk management expertise, as well as its new technologies, would play a “critical role” in allowing the company to triumph over nature’s daunting obstacles.
As the world now knows, it did not turn out that way.
As BP struggled last week to stanch the flow of spewing oil at the Deepwater Horizon rig, it has become clear that the pressure to dig deeper and faster from what Mr. Eyton then called a “frontier province” of oil exploration has in some ways outpaced the knowledge about how to do that safely. (And there is still the question of whether BP used all the tools and safety mechanisms available.)
Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.
“Americans have a lot of faith that over the long run technology will solve everything, a sense that somehow we’re going to find a way to fix it,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. He said Pew polling in 1999, before the September 2001 terror attacks, found that 64 percent of Americans pessimistically believed that a terrorist attack on the United States probably or definitely would happen. But they were naïvely optimistic about the fruits of technology: 81 percent said there would be a cure for cancer, 76 percent said we would put men on Mars.
Our experience of technology has been largely wondrous and positive: The green revolution ameliorated the problem of world hunger (for a time at least) with better seeds and fertilizers to increase harvests. When childhood diseases were ravaging the world, vaccines came along and (nearly) eliminated them. There are medicines for the human immunodeficiency virus and AIDS. There is the iPad.
Many experts in the field of undersea oil exploration believe that technology can also resolve the risks of operating tens of thousands of feet under the seabed, despite BP’s current problems.
“We’re pushing the envelope, but I personally believe that the technology, in terms of equipment and processes, will be able to keep up with what we’re doing, though this experience may slow things down,” said Stefan Mrozewski, a senior staff associate at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, whose research involves projects like drilling boreholes in deep water to study chemicals under the seafloor.
He previously worked as an engineer in the oil industry on deepwater rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
He said the blowout on the rig and the apparent failure of the blowout preventer was “beyond the realm of expectation,” most likely a combination of unimaginable human and mechanical error. Noting that rigorous planning precedes deepwater drilling, yet “the risk is still not zero,” he said the accident last month would encourage designers and engineers to improve the technology and procedures, so that a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon explosion could not happen again.
Still, as he watched a live feed of drilling mud being pumped into the leaking well on the seabed, he acknowledged that the science of repair and cleanup seemed lacking. “My impression is that we were unprepared for this,” he said. “There were not a lot of good technologies and techniques ready.”
William Jackson, deputy director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Gland, Switzerland, said abstract devotion was misguided: “At this time in history we have great faith in having the technological ability to solve problems, and that faith has proved incorrect in this place.”
He said that even good new ideas needed funding and testing to make sure they worked. He pointed out that pledges by the coal industry and some countries to curb future carbon dioxide emissions often assume the successful evolution of technologies that are as yet unproven or have never been tried on a large scale.
“There is this belief that an engineering solution can be found as you move along,” he said, noting that carbon capture and storage, which involves pumping CO2 emissions underground rather than releasing them to the air, may be “there” as a science, but the costs prevent it from being a practical answer.
By all accounts, the oil industry is infused with this “can do” attitude: Oil running low? “Oil wells will run dry, but advances in technologies can put off the inevitable,” said a 2006 article in a newsletter of the American Oil and Gas Historical Society. In his 2005 talk, Mr. Eyton, now BP’s group head of research and technology, was not so cavalier, discussing the need for vigilant risk management.
“We find ourselves designing floating systems for 10,000 feet of water depth before the lessons of working in 6,000 feet have been fully identified,” he said.
He sang the benefits of technology while acknowledging its danger, expressing hope that fail-safe features and computer modeling could decrease the risk: “We know the premium associated with hardware reliability is high, but at this stage, operators still have a limited failure database for forecasting the required levels of intervention in ever-deeper and more remote environments.”
Technology, he added, “becomes both an enabler, while at the same time being itself a source of risk.”
In the beginning of May, a few weeks after the rig explosion, the Pew Research Center asked 994 Americans about the oil spill: 55 percent saw it as a major environmental disaster, and 37 percent as a serious problem. But at that time, at least, 51 percent also believed that efforts to prevent the spill from spreading would be successful. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil later, federal officials last week released a new estimate of the spill, 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, establishing it as the largest in American history. As Richard Feynman, the physicist, once observed, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” Sometimes ingenuity may not help us.
Indeed, think of all the planes grounded for nearly a week in northern Europe last month, as a volcano poured ash in the atmosphere. There was no technological fix, and many passengers couldn’t believe it. Said Mr. Kohut, of Pew Research, “The reaction was: ‘Fix this. Fix this. This is outrageous.’ ”
By Ted Anthony and Mary Foster, Associated Press Writers.
There is still a hole in the Earth, crude oil is still spewing from it and there is still, excruciatingly, no end in sight. After trying and trying again, one of the world’s largest corporations, backed and pushed by the world’s most powerful government, can’t stop the runaway gusher.
As desperation grows and ecological misery spreads, the operative word on the ground now is, incredibly, August is the earliest moment that a real resolution could be at hand. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success. For the United States and the people of its beleaguered Gulf Coast, a dispiriting summer of oil and anger lies dead ahead.
Oh … and the Atlantic hurricane season begins Tuesday.
The latest attempt — using a remote robotic arm to stuff golf balls and assorted debris into the gash in the seafloor — didn’t work. On Sunday, as churches echoed with prayers for a solution, BP PLC said it would focus on containment rather than plugging the undersea puncture wound, effectively redirecting the mess it made rather than stopping it.
“We failed to wrestle this beast to the ground,” said BP Managing Director Bob Dudley, doing the rounds of the Sunday talk shows.
Trouble is, the longer it lasts, the more beasts emerge ready to wrestle. Crude-coated birds are becoming a frequent sight along coastal areas. At the sea’s bottom, no one knows what the oil will do to species like the newly discovered bottom-dwelling pancake batfish — and others that remain unknown but just as threatened.
Perhaps most alarming of all, 40 days and 40 nights after the Deepwater Horizon blew up and began the underwater deluge, hurricane season is at hand. It brings the horrifying possibility of wind-whipped, oil-soaked waves and water spinning ashore and coating areas much further inland. Imagine Katrina plus oil spill.
On its own, the spill is already the worst in American history — worse, even, than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. It has released between 18 million and 40 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, according to government estimates that are, like all numbers involved in this brouhaha, subject to vigorous debate.
The trepidation is less disputed. “This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we’ve ever faced in this country,” White House Energy and Climate Change Advisor Carol Browner said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
At some point, the widespread debut of the BP “spillcam” is as good a delineation point as any, this tipped, in the national conversation, from a destructive event into a calamitous, open-ended saga. And for the bruised and cantankerous American psyche, it could not come at a worse time.
Fear is afoot everywhere, and polarization prevails. Faith in institutions, corporations, government, the media, is down. Americans are angry, and they long ago grew accustomed to expecting the resolution of problems in very short order, even if reality rarely works that way.
So when something undefined and uncontrollable happens, they speculate in all the modern forums about collusion and nefarious dealings. In the process, this tale of environmental disaster and economic damage cripples the sea-to-shining-sea narrative that usually offers Americans comfort during uncertain times.
“There are people who are getting desperate, and there are more getting anxious as we get further into the shrimping season and there is less chance they will recover,” said the Rev. Theodore Turner, 57, at Mount Oliver Baptist Church in Boothville, near where oil first washed ashore. Fishermen make up about a third of his congregation.
With the “junk shot” and the “top kill” behind it, BP’s next effort involves an assortment of undersea robot maneuvers that would redirect the oil up and out of the water it is poisoning. The decision effectively means that the notion of stopping the crude entirely is receding into the background for now.
The first step in BP’s latest effort is the intricate removal of a damaged riser that brought oil to the surface of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The riser will be cut at the top of the crippled blowout preventer, creating a flat surface that a new containment valve can seal against.
The valve would force the oil into a new riser, bringing it up to a ship. The seal, however, would not prevent all oil from escaping. How much could still leak remains a subject of debate.
If the containment valve fails, there are other options. Next on BP’s list: installing a new blowout preventer on top of the existing one.
In the end, however, the only permanent solution is the drilling a relief well that would relieve the pressure on the runaway gusher in favor of a controlled pumping — essentially what the Deepwater Horizon was trying to do in the first place. But that will take at least two months.
That’s not just two months of dealing with the extensive damage done until now to oceans, beaches and marshlands. It’s two months more of oil pouring outward and upward — and two months more toward the heart of hurricane season and its potential to sow destruction.
Using government figures, if the leak continues at its current pace and is stopped on Aug. 1, 51 million to 106 million gallons will have spilled. If it stops Aug. 15, 58 million to 121 million gallons will have spilled. If it is not stopped until the end of August, that figure rises to 65.5 million gallons to 136.5 million gallons. That’s quite a range of possibilities.
“They are going to destroy south Louisiana. We are dying a slow death here,” said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, La.
Coastal tent cities are about to rise to house the workers and contractors charged with fixing and minimizing the damage. Sand banks and barriers are being built. But the consensus around the Gulf Coast is turning more apoplectic and apocalyptic. This is, people are starting to say, a generational event — tragic to this generation, potentially crippling to the next.
“The oil spill is part of prophecy,” said Turner, the Louisiana minister. “The Bible prophesized hardships. If we believe the word of God is true — and we do — we also know that in addition to prophecying hardships he promised to take care of us.”
As BP and the government chart the way forward, there remain prominently unanswered questions along the way.
How involved has the Obama administration been, how involved should it have been, and how much control should BP be given for events that are of public interest and happening in public places? Why have BP, scientists and the government been unable to accurately capture how much is actually leaking, the extent of damage and figure out how to fix it? And what can be done now to prevent even more of a disaster from unfolding, and to ensure transparency as decisive steps are taken to fix what’s broken?
“I am resolute and confident that we will see a better day ahead of us,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Saturday. And yet that statement, stacked up against the word “August,” tempers the optimism for many watching this saga unfold.
They see a dissembling corporation, an ineffective government and an ocean surface covered by a viscous shell with the consistency of molasses and the peril of poison. To them, it comes down to only this: There is still a hole in the Earth. Crude oil is still spewing from it. And there is still, excruciatingly, no end in sight.
By GREG BLUESTEIN and BEN NUCKOLS, Associated Press Writers
As BP labored for a second day Thursday to choke off the leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, dire new government estimates showed the disaster has easily eclipsed the Exxon Valdez as the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
After an 18-hour delay to assess its efforts and bring in more materials, BP resumed pumping heavy drilling mud into the blown-out well 5,000 feet underwater. Officials said it could be late Friday or the weekend before the company knows if the procedure known as a top kill has cut off the oil that has been flowing for five weeks.
As the world waited, President Barack Obama announced major new restrictions on drilling projects, and the head of the federal agency that regulates the industry resigned under pressure, becoming the highest-ranking political casualty of the crisis so far.
BP PLC insisted the top kill was progressing as planned, though the company acknowledged drilling mud was escaping from the broken pipe along with the leaking crude.
“The fact that we had a bunch of mud going up the riser isn’t ideal but it’s not necessarily indicative of a problem,” said spokesman Tom Mueller.
Early Thursday, officials said the process was going well, but later in the day they announced pumping had been suspended 16 hours earlier. BP did not characterize the suspension as a setback, and Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said the move did not indicate the top kill had failed.
“The good news is that they pumped in up to 65 barrels a minute and the thing didn’t blow apart,” Smith said. “It’s taken the most pressure it needs to see and it’s held together.”
The top kill is the latest in a string of attempts to stop the oil that has been spewing since the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20. Eleven workers were killed.
If the procedure works, BP will inject cement into the well to seal it permanently. If it doesn’t, the company has a number of backup plans. Either way, crews will continue to drill two relief wells, considered the only surefire way to stop the leak.
A top kill has never been attempted before so deep underwater. BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said the company is also considering shooting small, dense rubber balls or assorted junk such as golf balls and rubber scraps to stop up a crippled five-story piece of equipment known as a blowout preventer to keep the mud from escaping.
The stakes were higher than ever as public frustration over the spill grew and a team of government scientists said the oil has been flowing at a rate 2 1/2 to five times higher than what BP and the Coast Guard previously estimated.
Two teams of scientists calculated the well has been spewing between 504,000 and more than a million gallons a day. Even using the most conservative estimate, that means about 18 million gallons have spilled so far. In the worst-case scenario, 39 million gallons have leaked.
That larger figure would be nearly four times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which a tanker ran aground in Alaska in 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons.
“Now we know the true scale of the monster we are fighting in the Gulf,” said Jeremy Symons, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. “BP has unleashed an unstoppable force of appalling proportions.”
BP officials said the previous estimate of 210,000 gallons a day was based on the best data available at the time and that the company’s response was not tied to the estimate.
“I don’t believe at any time we have misled anybody on this,” Suttles said.
The spill is not the biggest ever in the Gulf. In 1979, a drilling rig in Mexican waters — the Ixtoc I — blew up, releasing 140 million gallons of oil.
In another troubling discovery, marine scientists said they have spotted a huge new plume of what they believe to be oil deep beneath the Gulf, stretching 22 miles from the leaking wellhead northeast toward Mobile Bay, Ala. They fear it could have resulted from using chemicals a mile below the surface to break up the oil.
In Washington, Elizabeth Birnbaum stepped down as director of the Minerals Management Service, a job she had held since July. Her agency has been harshly criticized over lax oversight of drilling and cozy ties with industry.
An internal Interior Department report released earlier this week found that between 2000 and 2008, agency staff members accepted tickets to sports events, lunches and other gifts from oil and gas companies and used government computers to view pornography.
Polls show the public is souring on the administration’s handling of the catastrophe, and Obama sought to assure Americans that the government is in control and deflect criticism that his administration has left BP in charge.
“My job right now is just to make sure everybody in the Gulf understands: This is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about. The spill,” he said. Obama said he would end the “scandalously close relationship” between regulators and the oil companies they oversee. He also extended a freeze on new deepwater oil drilling and canceled or delayed proposed lease sales in the waters off Alaska and Virginia and along the Gulf Coast.
Fishermen, hotel and restaurant owners, politicians and residents along the 100-mile stretch of Gulf coast affected by the spill are fed up with BP’s failures to stop the spill. Thick oil is coating birds and delicate wetlands in Louisiana.
“I have anxiety attacks,” said Sarah Rigaud, owner of Sarah’s Restaurant in Grand Isle, La., where the beach was closed because blobs of oil that looked like melted chocolate had washed up on shore. “Every day I pray that something happens, that it will be stopped and everybody can get back to normal.”
Charlotte Randolph, president of Louisiana’s Lafourche Parish, one of the coastal parishes affected by the spill, said: “I mean, it’s wearing on everybody in this coastal region. You see it in people’s eyes. You see it. We need to stop the flow.”
“Tourism is dead. Fishing is dead. We’re dying a slow death,” she added.
The Coast Guard approved portions of Louisiana’s $350 million plan to ring its coastline with a wall of sand meant to keep out the oil.
Associated Press Writers Seth Borenstein, Matthew Brown, Jason Dearen, Andrew Taylor and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
By Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Special to CNN
It’s interesting how many people have swallowed the BP public relations’ bait to call the explosion from Deepwater Horizon oil rig the Gulf oil spill. We need to call it what it is: the BP oil spill. The federal government needs to take control and take punitive action against BP and any negligent government regulators immediately.
As a concerned citizen, preparedness speaker and author, and former commander of federal troops in disaster response, I watched with interest as BP brought out its big PR guns to protect its brand and its platoon of expert engineers, paid by BP to talk about how it happened and how they intended to fix it.
BP’s reaction was much like Toyota’s when it was confronted with safety issues. It, too, focused on PR to protect its brand, versus telling the truth, and sent out its engineers to talk about the problem and the fix.
The U.S. Coast Guard was the first responder. The Coast Guard’s priority always is to save lives. They spent days looking for the 11 missing men. Meanwhile, BP took advantage of this time to make itself the authoritative voice in the news about the spill and blame other companies.
The No. 1 rule when dealing with disaster is to figure out which rules you need to break.
–Lt. Gen. Russel Honore
The U.S. government response was based on laws and rules that were created after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. After Valdez, the law changed to make the offending company responsible for the cleanup. A fund was created that all oil companies contributed to. If there was an emergency oil spill, a company could draw up to $75 million from this fund to fix the problem. But the fund was meant to help small wildcat operations, not huge conglomerates like BP.
Sticking to that regulation was part of the problem. The No. 1 rule when dealing with disaster is to figure out which rules you need to break. Rules are designed for when everything is working. A democracy is based on trust. BP has proved it can’t be trusted.
iReporters share views on oil spill response
The government needs to change the game and make this a punitive effort. The government has been too friendly to oil companies.
The government should immediately freeze BP’s assets and start to charge the corporation, say $100 million, each day the oil flows. The money could be held in a fund that U.S. government draws on to take care of the people along the Gulf Coast and pay the states for doing the cleanup.
Next, BP and the government bureaucrats who broke a law and put the public at risk need to go to jail.
The latest curse going around in southern Louisiana today is, ‘BP you.’
–Lt. Gen. Russel Honore
I remember when we were evacuating New Orleans on Saturday following Katrina. We pushed the survivors to the airport and a major called and said the pilots refused to fly the plane without a manifest and there was trouble with weapons scanners.
I told him to direct everyone to put the people on the planes as fast as possible, and we would to do the manifest en route or on landing. As a result, we flew 16,000 people out of NOLA airport in less than seven hours.
The priorities of the response to the spill must be to stop the flow of oil, prevent the oil from getting into the shoreline as much as possible, mitigate the effects of the oil in the ocean, and take care of the people who have lost their source of employment, such as fishermen and those in the tourist industry.
BP’s job is to focus on stopping the flow of oil. The government needs to provide more military “command and control” of the situation. As BP works to stop the gusher, the government must address the problem of the oil coming ashore and take care of the people affected, possibly retraining them in other jobs. The government could do this by using the Stafford Act to fund the states so they can protect their shoreline and clean up the oil. Then, the long-term effects of the spill must be mitigated.
The people of the Gulf Coast, particularly South Louisiana, are still recovering from Katrina. They’ve been through hurricanes Rita, Gustav and Ike.
They know hurricane season is right around the corner and this BP oil spill has the potential to get much worse. And they don’t trust BP.
Punitive action must start immediately, with BP supplying the money, from fines, to help the Gulf Coast get over this catastrophe.
Editor’s note: Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré commanded the military response to Hurricane Katrina. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2008 after 37 years, sits on the board of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and is an adjunct professor at Emory and Vanderbilt universities. He is the author of “Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save America and You from Disasters.”