Engineers trying to contain the oil spill from the stricken BP Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico have expressed optimism over the "containment cap" placed over the broken well, although it remains uncertain just how effective the method will be in capturing all of the oil.
Latest estimates released today suggest that about 10,000 barrels of oil a day are being caught in the device that was placed over the leaking pipe using remotely operated equipment. The oil is being collected in the funnel-like cap and then ushered up to the surface, where it is collected in a tanker called the Discoverer Enterprise sitting above the wellhead.
In a familiar pattern in the crisis, now in its 48th day, a notably more upbeat impression of the containment operation was given by BP than by the US government. BP's chief executive Tony Hayward told the BBC that, once the production flow was up to full speed, he would expect the proportion captured "to be the majority, probably the vast majority of the oil".
But Thad Allen, the US coastguard admiral who is co-ordinating the response of government agencies in the Gulf, gave a much more cautious assessment. He told Face the Nation on CBS: "I'm hoping we catch as much oil as we can, but I'm withholding any comment until production is at a full rate."
Behind Allen's caution lies fears that the procedure could come a cropper as it did when a containment cap was first attempted over the leaking well: this was the result of icy hydrates forming from the mixing of oil and water, a process that clogs up the cap. To prevent that happening again, methanol is being pumped into the cap in an attempt to stop the formation of the slush, while the pressure of the oil is slowly being increased through the use of vents on the side of the cap.
The final success of the process will not be known until all the vents are closed. The current rate of extraction of 10,000 barrels a day compares with the US government's worst-case scenario which estimates that up to 25,000 barrels a day of oil could be spewing from the well. Even if the cap proves to be largely successful in siphoning off the outpouring oil, Allen stressed that the damage of the oil that has already escaped would be long term. He said the spill was not monolithic, but was in fact hundreds of thousands of smaller spills spreading across a 200-mile radius.
"We are in the middle of a long-term campaign," he said. "We are fighting on three fronts: the sub-sea, the surface area above the well where the oil is coming up, and when it gets to shore we are fighting the battle there. "
Two relief wells are being drilled down into the well to "bottom kill" it – that is, to intercept the oil beneath the ocean bed and stop it rising up by blocking it with heavy mud. The first relief well has now reached 7,000ft beneath the sea bed and the other 3,000ft beneath it, but neither is expected to intercept the well board until August at the earliest.
The multiple efforts under way to drill the relief wells, spread dispersants below and on the sea surface and operate the containment cap is reflected in a hive of activity around the Deepwater Horizon site. According to Allen, up to 20 vessels are deployed at any one time in a one-mile radius of the wrecked well.
As oil continues to come ashore on beaches in Alabama and the Panhandle of Florida, clean-up operations are being stepped up. More than 400 fishing vessels are laying container booms and skimming oil from the surface off Alabama.
Unemployed people are being used in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida in the clean-up operation in a new scheme launched on Saturday. Some 400 jobless individuals were put to work over the weekend. The aim is to train up to 4,500 workers across the three states.
In his BBC interview, Hayward admitted that safety standards in deep-sea drilling were not up to scratch. The BP chief executive said: "It's clearly unacceptable that it's occurred, so what has to happen on the part of the industry and certainly BP is to move safety standards to a completely different level."
From The Guardian