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US: Oil Hits Home, Spreading Arc of Frustration

by Campbell Robertson, Clifford Krauss and John M. BroderNew York Times
May 24th, 2010

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

A contractor operated an oil skimmer in the Pass-a-Loutre area of the Mississippi River Delta.

For weeks, it was a disaster in abstraction, a threat floating somewhere out there.

Not anymore. In the last week, the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico has revealed itself to an angry and desperate public, smearing tourist beaches, washing onto the shorelines of sleepy coastal communities and oozing into marshy bays that fishermen have worked for generations. It has even announced its arrival on the Louisiana coast with a fittingly ugly symbol: brown pelicans, the state bird, dyed with crude.

More than a month has passed since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up, spewing immeasurable quantities of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and frustrating all efforts to contain it. The billowing plume of undersea oil and water has thwarted the industry’s well-control efforts and driven government officials to impotent rage.

It has demonstrated the enduring laxity of federal regulation of offshore operations and has shown the government to be almost wholly at the mercy of BP, the company leasing the rig, to provide the technology, personnel and equipment to stop the bleeding well.

Senators and administration officials visiting the southern Louisiana town of Galliano lashed out again at BP on Monday, saying they were “beyond patience” with the company. The day before, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who early in the crisis vowed to “keep the boot on the neck” of BP, threatened to push the company out of the way.

But on Monday, Mr. Salazar backed off, conceding to the reality that BP and the oil companies have access to the best technology to attack the well, a mile below the surface, even though that technology has proved so far to have fallen short of its one purpose. The government’s role, he acknowledged, is largely supervisory and the primary responsibility for the spill, for legal and practical reasons, remains with the company.

“The administration has done everything we can possibly do to make sure that we push BP to stop the spill and to contain the impact,” Mr. Salazar said. “We have also been very clear that there are areas where BP and the private sector are the ones who must continue to lead the efforts with government oversight, such as the deployment of private sector technology 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to kill the well.”

Oil industry experts said they did not take seriously the sporadic threats by the administration that the federal government might have to wrest management of the effort to plug the well from BP. The experts said that the Interior and Energy Departments do not have engineers with more experience in deepwater drilling than those who work for BP and the array of companies that have been brought into the effort to stem the leak.

“It’s worse than politics,” said Larry Goldstein, a director of the Energy Policy Research Foundation, which is partly financed by the oil industry. “They have had the authority from Day 1. If they could have handled this situation better, they would have already.”

As the verbal warfare between officials and company executives escalated, the slick from the April 20 well blowout continued to spread in billowing rust-colored splotches in the gulf, raising urgent questions about what lay beneath.

On land, shrimpers were stuffing their catch into coolers in hopes of having some in store if the season ends altogether. Hotel owners all along the gulf were trying to persuade tourists to keep their vacation plans. But as they looked to BP and the authorities for help, or at least direction, there has only been frustration.

“I never thought it would come to this,” said Ryan Lambert, a charter boat operator in Buras, La., who spoke to the federal delegation on Monday. “My guys look to me and say ‘What do I do, boss?’ And I don’t have an answer.”

Several things have become clear over the past month. Neither BP nor the government was prepared for an oil release of this size or at this depth. The federal Minerals Management Service, charged with overseeing offshore oil development, has for too long served as a handmaiden of industry. Laws governing deepwater drilling have fallen far behind the technology and the attendant risks. And no one can estimate the extent of the economic and environmental damage, or how long it will last.

“Just under 70 miles of our coast have been hit by oil,” said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican, who criticized the disjointed response effort that he said has allowed oil to come ashore unnecessarily. “Let’s make no mistake that what is at threat here is our way of life.”

The crude has been flowing at a rate still unknown nearly a mile below the surface, escaping in quantities far greater than the small amount of oil that has been burned off, collected with booms or sucked from the broken drill pipe lying on the ocean floor.

Using conservative government and BP estimates, more than seven million gallons of oil have been released from the crippled well, nearing the size of the spill from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Independent estimates of the gulf spill place it many times higher than the official figure, rendering the statistics about how much oil has been collected thus far nearly useless in gauging the effectiveness of the response.

For weeks BP tried without success to reactivate the seal-off valves on the dead blowout preventer, the tower of pipes designed to shut the well. Then it lowered a 40-foot steel containment chamber in an effort to funnel escaping oil to a ship on the surface, but that failed when an icy slush of gas and water stopped up the device.

In recent days, BP attached a mile-long tube into the leaking well designed to divert oil to a drill ship before it leaked into the gulf. But the company said the rate it has been able to capture has varied from day to day, between 1,360 and 3,000 barrels, far below even the most conservative estimates of how much oil was leaking.

The recriminations over the performance of BP and the Obama administration could subside if the latest effort to kill the well, now scheduled for Wednesday morning, succeeds.

In a maneuver called a “top kill,” BP is planning to pump heavy drilling fluids twice the density of water through two narrow lines into the blowout preventer to essentially plug the runaway well.

“The top kill operation is not a guarantee of success,” warned Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, who added that it had never been tried before in deep water under high pressures.

“If the government felt there were other things to do it is clearly within the power of the government to do that,” Mr. Suttles said. “Everyone is very, very frustrated.”

Mr. Suttles said that if the top kill did work, the leak could be stopped as early as Wednesday night. Then engineers could either fill the well with cement or replace the failed blowout preventer.

Shortly after officials lambasted his company in Galliano, Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, invited reporters to follow as he walked along the beach at Port Fourchon, which was crowded with workers in yellow Hazmat suits picking up shovelfuls of chocolate-colored crude off the sand.

Asked about the top kill, Mr. Hayward acknowledged that it was far from a sure fix.

“We rate the probability of success between 60 percent and 70 percent,” he said. “Beyond that, there is a third and fourth and fifth option around both containment and elimination."





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