The operation that one expert likened to "pushing toothpaste through an obstacle course" continued Thursday afternoon, "a titanic struggle of forces" in which BP was not yet ready to declare victory, the Washington Post reported. -- Another energy expert said the attempt was "like doing brain surgery using robots under a mile of water with equipment that's got 30,000 horsepower of energy inside of it," Joel Achenbach said. -- But shortly after the the Post filed its story, AP reported that BP had "suspended its attempt to choke off the gusher at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday so crews could monitor their work and bring in more drilling mud." -- BP "said everything was going as planned and the effort was expected to resume later in the evening," but there had been no prior announcement of a planned suspension from the corporation's spokespersons, whose credibility is not high....
SUCCESS OF 'TOP KILL' ATTEMPT REMAINS UNCERTAIN, BP OFFICIAL SAYS
By Joel Achenbach
May 27, 2010 -- 1314 PDT
The "top kill" on the leaking gulf oil well remained a brute-force battle Thursday afternoon between drilling mud and high-pressure oil and gas surging from deep below the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Success remains uncertain, a BP executive said, and it could be another 24 to 48 hours before the outcome is known.
"Success has been in the ability to pump against the well. Next step is to get more fluid flowing down the well. Until the well is stopped and cemented, it will not be killed," BP managing director Bob Dudley stated in a company press release Thursday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the federal government, said in media interviews that the top kill was working as planned and that oil and gas were no longer leaking.
"They've been able to stabilize the wellhead," he told a New Orleans radio station. "They've stopped the hydrocarbons from coming up."
But Dudley was more cautious later in the day. "It's working as we had planned; we have the ability to pump; what's different is that we want to pump without damaging the BOP and it will likely be an additional 24-48 hours for us to be able to be sure we have overcome the flow."
The flow from the damaged riser pipe has turned muddy, suggesting that oil and gas are no longer leaking. "What you've been observing out of the top of that riser is most likely mud," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Wednesday night. "We can't fully confirm that because we can't sample it."
"It is a little like arm wrestling," Dudley told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Thursday. "It is quite a titanic struggle of forces, and it's going to go slow."
The scale of the disaster, meanwhile, has come into focus: It is the worst U.S. oil spill, with oil having gushed into the water at several times the rate previously estimated. The early estimate by the federal government -- repeated by BP for weeks -- put the leak at 5,000 barrels a day. But U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said at a news conference Thursday that two teams of scientists, using different methods, have preliminarily determined that between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day have leaked into the gulf.
That comes out to 504,000 to 798,000 gallons of oil a day. Figuring that the leak began when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank to the gulf bottom April 22, and subtracting the oil siphoned from the leaking pipe and pumped onto a barge, the flow rate would mean that between 17 million and 27 million gallons of oil have polluted the gulf. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, by comparison, put 11 million gallons of oil along more than a thousand miles of Alaska's coastline.
Also Thursday, a White House official said the director of the federal agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling had been forced out of her job in the wake of the disaster. Elizabeth Birnbaum resigned "effective immediately" from the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency that has been faulted for lax oversight in the wake of the mammoth spill. Birnbaum had been slated to testify on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
What was clear was that the magnitude of the spill resulting from the explosion of a BP oil rig continues to grow, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Desperate to stop the flow, BP engineers on Wednesday launched the effort known as "top kill," pumping mud into the damaged blowout preventer in an effort to plug the leak. The hazardous-but-high-reward maneuver comes five weeks into the oil spill crisis amid an intensifying atmosphere of political recrimination that has spread from the Gulf Coast to the White House and Congress.
On another front in the battle against the oil spill, the Coast Guard pulled 125 fishing vessels off the water in Breton Sound after fishermen who had been hired by BP to clean up the slick complained of nausea and chest pains, the Associated Press reported. This is the latest in a series of reports in recent weeks of fishermen feeling sick while trying to skim the oil.
President Obama, in a news conference Thursday, was expected to outline tougher rules and regulations of the oil drilling industry and suspend exploratory drilling in the Arctic until at least next year. This will delay a controversial drilling effort by Shell this summer in the seas off northern Alaska. The moves come after a 30-day review of oil drilling that Obama ordered when the crisis began.
BP officials, having studied pressure readings, finally pulled the trigger on the top kill at 2:00 p.m. The world could follow the top kill via live video feeds from robots on the seafloor. It was strikingly similar to watching an Apollo moon landing: grainy images of unfamiliar technology in an alien landscape.
The procedure pumps heavy drilling mud from a ship on the surface down to the seafloor and into the five-story blowout preventer atop the well. If all goes as planned, the mud will slide about 2 1/2 miles down to the bottom of the well bore, rendering the well "static." Engineers would follow up with cement plugs to seal the well permanently.
Much could go wrong. The pressure of the injected mud could damage the blowout preventer and exacerbate the leaks. The mud will go wherever it can, and not necessarily where the engineers would prefer.
"There's a hole, but it's kind of like pushing toothpaste through an obstacle course," said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.
"I feel for the guys who are doing it, the people whose hands are actually on the throttles there," said energy analyst Byron King. "It's like doing brain surgery using robots under a mile of water with equipment that's got 30,000 horsepower of energy inside of it."
Millions of gallons of oil, and possibly tens of millions, have leaked into the gulf since the April 20 explosion and fire that killed 11 crew members on the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which sank two days later.
Oil has touched 84 miles of Louisiana's ragged shoreline and envelops the crow's foot of the Mississippi River delta. The oil trajectory forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that some of the oil has been captured by the gulf's Loop Current and by noon Friday could spread approximately as far south as, but considerably to the west of, Key West, Fla.
Traveling in Fremont, Calif., Obama said Wednesday that the passage of energy legislation has become more urgent because of the oil spill, which he called "just heartbreaking." Speaking to an audience of employees at a solar-panel manufacturing plant, Obama said the spill underscores the need to shift from fossil fuels to solar, wind and other types of power. He noted the great depth at which the Deepwater Horizon rig had drilled the now-leaking well.
"With the increased risks and increased costs, it gives you a sense of where we're going," Obama said. "We're not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use."
After his news conference Thursday, the president is scheduled to receive a briefing on the hurricane season forecast. Officials overseeing the oil spill have said they are worried that hurricanes could slow or halt future efforts to stop the leak, contain the damage and clean up the water. Obama flies to the gulf Friday.
Also Wednesday, new details emerged about the hours leading up to the fatal blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig. At a briefing for reporters in Washington, BP's head of safety and operations, Mark Bly, and other company officials detailed a cascade of breakdowns and mistakes before the accident. For example, BP's chief representative on the rig knew about an abnormal increase in pressure in the drill pipe, an indication that gas was probably in the pipe when it shouldn't have been. That representative, however, never called the Houston office for advice, despite the indications of trouble and differences between him and the top official there from Transocean, the company that owned the rig.
Moreover, the BP officials said, rig workers should have known oil or gas was in the drill pipe because when they were replacing drilling mud with seawater, they replaced 775 barrels of mud with only 352 barrels of water.
Meanwhile, at an official inquiry into the blowout in Kenner, La., the Deepwater Horizon's chief mechanic said he had witnessed a dispute between a BP official and rig workers. The dispute, mechanic Doug Brown said, was over whether to replace heavy drilling fluid in the well with lighter seawater. The rig workers didn't want to, he said, but the "company man" from BP overruled them: "This is how it's going to be."
Brown said the top Transocean official on the rig grumbled, "Well, I guess that's what we have those pinchers for," which he took to be a reference to devices called shear rams, crucial equipment on the blowout preventer that can slam a well shut in an emergency.
In addition, the Associated Press obtained witness statements given to the U.S. Coast Guard that described moments of indecision on the rig as workers waited for official approval before activating the blowout preventer. When they finally did, the AP said, there was no hydraulic power to operate it.
In Washington, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who led the month-long emergency review ordered by Obama, used a congressional hearing Wednesday to blame the Bush administration for what he called a "reprehensible" culture that developed within the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Interior Department that issues permits for offshore oil drilling.
"Unlike the prior administration, this is not the candy store of the oil and gas kingdom," Salazar said before the House Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.) lamented, "We want to put some people in jail perhaps, but putting people in jail does not undo the damage that was done."
--Staff writers Perry Bacon, Juliet Eilperin, David Fahrenthold, Steven Mufson, Michael D. Shear, and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
BP PAUSES EFFORT TO STOP GULF OIL LEAK
By Greg Bluestein
May 27, 2010 -- 1520 PDT
ROBERT, La. -- BP suspended its attempt to choke off the gusher at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday so crews could monitor their work and bring in more drilling mud, but the company said everything was going as planned and the effort was expected to resume later in the evening.
News that it would be at least 24 more hours before officials know if the procedure called a "top kill" will work came as dire new government estimates showed the disaster has easily eclipsed the Exxon Valdez as the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
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 started shooting heavy drilling mud into the blown-out well 5,000 feet underwater on Wednesday afternoon, then stopped later that night to monitor the work and bring in 630,000 more gallons of mud, said BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles, who insisted nothing had gone wrong.
"The fact that it's taken more than 24 hours is not a big surprise," he said. "We'll stay at this until we're successful or we determine we can't be successful."
He said crews may also shoot assorted junk such as golf balls and rubber scraps into a piece of equipment known as a blowout preventer to fill holes.
The top kill try was the latest in a string of attempts to stop the oil that has been spewing for five weeks, since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven workers were killed in the accident.
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.
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 2½ to five times higher than what BP and the Coast Guard initially 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 spokesman Steve Rinehart said the previous estimate of 210,000 gallons a day was based on the best data available at the time. As for the new figures, he said: "It does not and will not change the response. We are going all out on our response."
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 last 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 put an end to 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.