Top Kill fails: BP settles in for a summer-long leak

PORT FOURCHON, LA - MAY 24:  A BP cleanup crew...

BP, US retreat to the home front. Image by Getty Images North America via @daylife

Unlike the top-kill procedure that BP abandoned last night, the oil company’s next approach is not expected to halt the oil leak at the sea floor.

Instead, BP and U.S. officials are preparing to minimize damage from a reduced but persistent leak that could continue for most of the summer, they said in a press conference last night (audio).

That long-term effort will include the continued use of unprecedented volumes of hazardous chemical dispersants that submerge the oil and break it into globules, preventing or reducing a surface slick.

At the spill site, BP will focus on a new effort to capture much of the leaking oil using a version of the top-hat strategy, but company officials admit they can’t catch it all.

“We think the LMRP cap has the potential to capture the great majority of it. I don’t want ot say 100 percent but a great majority of it with that design,” said Doug Suttles, BP’s Chief Operating Officer. “If we can capture flow at the seabed, if we can fight this thing effectively at the surface and use subsea dispersal, we can actually minimize the amount of oil on the surface and minimize the amount of oil on the shore.”

BP and government officials were careful to give their change of strategy a positive spin, stopping short of admitting they had lost the battle to stop the leak in the short term. But Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry made it clear both parties were falling back on the exhaustive effort to disperse the oil, prevent it from coming ashore, and remove it from beaches and marshes.

“When you think about the volume that’s been spilled already and you look at the amount that’s reached the shore, we really have done a tremendous amount of good work in fighting this as far offshore as possible,” Landry said. “We will continue to keep that as our charge.”

BP has used nearly a million gallons of a dispersant called Corexit, spraying it on the ocean’s surface and injecting it into the plume of oil escaping from the damaged pipe near the sea floor. The material’s safety data sheet warns it can cause damage to the blood, liver and kidneys. (See video below of “dispersed” crude oil under water.)

“Obviously the subsea injection of dispersants has been very successful,” Landry said. “I know people are very anxious about that. I want to assure you, NOAA has brought in tremendous resources to begin ocean sampling, ocean monitoring, and we’re going to be transparent with that information. We’ve also got seafood sampling that’s begun. EPA is beefing up the air and water monitoring.”

BP will attempt to capture as much oil as they can from the damaged well using a Lower Marine Riser Package cap or LMRP, a version of the “top hat” strategy. The damaged and kinked riser will be cut off just above the Blowout Preventer on the seafloor. Remotely operated vehicles will slide an insertion tube into the freshly cut riser, but they have to keep seawater out to prevent the formation of methane hydrate crystals that foiled a prior attempt to capture the leaking oil.

To keep the seawater out, they will use a sealing grommet that, once penetrated, will continue to allow oil to escape from the leak site. Meanwhile, adjacent drilling platforms will continue to drill relief wells to intercept the leaking well below the seafloor and seal it by injecting vast amounts of concrete slurry. That process is expected to take until August.

“The real solution is a relief well,” Landry said. “It has never been top kill or LMRP.”

During the summer, the effort to minimize damage on the surface may be complicated by the weather, which has already begun to turn turbulent.

“We only have 107 miles of shoreline oiled right now and we have 30 acres of marsh,” Landry said. “We will continue to fight this fight but the challenge is always the weather. We’re all reminded that we’re going into hurricane season.”

Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society released a video last week of the underwater spill created by the dispersants:

[youtubevid id=”SKGMXBNd1Ho”]

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