BP Tries, Again, to Divert Oil Leak With Dome
Unable for six weeks to plug the gushing oil well beneath the Gulf of Mexico, BP renewed an effort Monday to use a dome to funnel some of the leaking crude to a tanker on the surface. A similar attempt failed three weeks ago, but officials said they had resolved some of the technical problems that forced them to abort last time.
If successful — and after the string of failures so far, there is no guarantee it will be — the containment dome may be able to capture most of the oil, but it would not plug the leak. Its failure would mean continued environmental and economic damage to the gulf region, as well as greater public pressure on BP and the Obama administration, with few options remaining for trying to contain the spill any time soon.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. plans to visit the Gulf Coast on Tuesday and meet with state attorneys general. Several senators have asked the Justice Department to determine whether any laws were broken in the spill.
A lasting solution for the leak may be months away, after engineers complete the drilling of a relief well, which would allow them to plug the leaking well with cement.
On Monday, engineers positioned submarine robots that will try to shear off a collapsed 21-inch riser pipe with a razorlike wire studded with bits of industrial diamonds. If that is achieved, officials will need at least a couple of days to position a domelike cap over the blowout preventer, which failed to shut off the well when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.
The trapped oil would then be funneled through a hose to ships floating near the well.
But, like all of BP’s efforts so far, this method had never been tried at such depths before this spill. Moreover, if kinks in the riser are now reducing the amount of oil escaping, cutting the riser could unleash a greater flow. And the greatest worry of all may be the potential arrival of hurricanes in the gulf; hurricane season officially begins on Tuesday. (Track the spill here.)
Engineers and technicians working on the response said that an active hurricane season, which is predicted by meteorologists, could not only push more oil ashore, but also cause weeks of delays in efforts to contain the spill.
Once a hurricane appears to be heading for the gulf, officials will have to disconnect the hose from the container on top of the well and retreat to port, leaving an unabated flow of oil into the water.
“Safety first,” said Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman. “We build in hurricane preparedness in operations, and that requires us to take the necessary precautions.”
Such precautions may stall the drilling of relief wells for weeks or more if a hurricane threatens.
“Will hurricanes trump the capping procedures or even the whole operation?” said Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, director of petroleum geoscience programs at the University of Houston. “That’s the wild card.”
Pressure is building on the Obama administration from Congress to take greater control over relief operations, and Gulf Coast residents are increasingly directing their frustration at BP as more oil washes ashore each day.
Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, drew criticism on Sunday when he said his company’s sampling of water had suggested that all the leaking oil was coming to the surface, despite several reports from independent researchers that underwater plumes were stretching for miles.
Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said Monday that he had sent a letter to Mr. Hayward requesting documentation to substantiate his claims.
Meanwhile, attention turned to the latest dome effort.
“Everything is at stake,” said Larry Goldstein, a director of the Energy Policy Research Foundation, an organization partly financed by the oil industry. “If this doesn’t work, you are looking at August before you can kill the well. That would mean oil would be seeping into the gulf, into our wetlands and into our way of life at the rate of 15,000 or 20,000 barrels a day — you pick the number.”
An immediate challenge lies in severing the riser without causing an even bigger leak. Carol M. Browner, the White House environmental and energy adviser, has warned that the well could leak an additional 20 percent. The hope is that this would be a temporary problem until the containment dome is installed.
The dome procedure began two days after a maneuver known as a top kill was aborted late Saturday, when officials were unable to stanch the flow of oil with heavy drilling mud and other materials.
“This is a containment operation that is more straightforward,” Robert Dudley, BP’s managing director, told CNN on Sunday morning. He said containing most of the escaping oil until a relief well could be drilled was “not a bad outcome compared to where we are today.”
Mr. Dudley and other senior company officials have said they do not expect that the operation, even if it fails, will worsen the flow of oil significantly. BP officials said a week ago that they estimated that a 10 to 15 percent increase was possible until the cap is firmly in place.
But a technician working on the project expressed concerns that engineers cannot be sure how much more oil might escape if the operation fails.
“We’re all concerned about it,” said the technician, who spoke on condition of remaining unnamed because he is not authorized to speak publicly for the company. “We simply do not have the data about the internal geometry of the blowout preventer” to determine what volume of oil is being contained by the damaged blowout preventer and any damaged equipment or debris inside it.
During the previous attempt to install a containment dome, icy water rushed into the box and filled it with natural gas hydrates. Ice crystals formed from water and natural gas under the high pressure a mile down. There was no room left for escaping oil in the dome, which also became buoyant and rose to the surface.
This time, tubes will deliver heated sea water and antifreeze to the vessel. But the technician said that the formation of hydrates was still possible.
Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, Austin, said he believed there was a good chance the new effort would work, “if they can stop the hydrates from forming.” But he cautioned that a worst-case scenario existed in which hydrates disrupt the effort and more oil is released from the severed riser.