Gulf oil spill: BP says ‘top kill’ taking longer than planned

BP officials said Friday the ‘top kill’ maneuver to plug the flow of oil in the Gulf of Mexico still could work. But they acknowledge that it’s likely to take several days longer than anticipated.

By MARK GUARINO | Christian Science Monitor Staff Writer
posted May 28, 2010 at 8:07 pm EDT

BP officials downplayed reports Friday that efforts to plug the flow of oil in the Gulf of Mexico are not working according to plan.

On Wednesday, the company launched an elaborate effort known as “top kill,” a maneuver involving pumping drilling mud at a rate of 40 to 50 barrels per minute to reduce the pressure of the oil’s flow. But early Friday morning the procedure was suspended for the second time in two days.

The New York Times quoted a technician in the operation who said that two attempts at a “junk shot,” a corresponding maneuver in which a cluster of rubber shards, fibers and golf balls were injected into the wrecked blowout preventer, did not work after it was discovered the pipe was keeping less than 10 percent of the materials. For junk shot to proceed, top kill operations were temporarily suspended. Top kill was first paused 11 hours into the operation Wednesday.

“I won’t say progress was zero, but I don’t know if we can round up enough mud to make it work,” technician was reported as saying. “Everyone is disappointed at this time.”

When top kill operations started early afternoon Wednesday, BP predicted it would take up to two days to determine whether or not it was a success. However at a press conference with reporters late Friday, BP Chief Operating Office Doug Suttles expanded that time window, saying that operations are expected to continue though the weekend and last up to 48 hours.

Mr. Suttles emphasized the unprecedented nature of the operation, given that the procedure had never taken place on a seafloor 5,000 feet below the surface. Although he said mud would continue pumping over the next 48 hours, he was later unclear regarding what signs were needed to declare it a success – and, if not, when recovery operators needed to move to the next phase.

“I talked about this being a bit like a rollercoaster. This is a long job and has many phases to it and we’re going to stay with it,” he said. “We’ll continue operations as long as necessary when it is successful or convinced it won’t succeed.”

Suttles said the remaining options include installing a second blowout preventer atop the original device that failed April 20 following an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, the oilrig BP leased for drilling. Another option to catch the oil, but not stop the leak, is placing a containment dome over the well, even though a previous attempt failed.

Despite the setbacks, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said on “Good Morning America” that top kill was “going pretty well” according to plan, although he cautioned that it had between a 60 percent and 70 percent chance of success due to its unprecedented depth.

On Friday, the closure of federal waters to commercial or recreational fishing was expanded to 60,783 square miles, about 25 percent of Gulf waters.

Suttles said continual monitoring of the top kill operation includes the possibility of switching back and forth between different densities of mud depending on how the oil pressure is responding. Even though video feeds on BP’s website show the efforts at the sea floor in real time, he warned they were not necessarily accurate in illustrating how the operation was faring.

“It’s very, very difficult to interpret those images as a sign of progress or anything else,” he said.

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