Some Success in the Gulf — and Trouble in Washington

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Clement Sabourin / AFP / Getty Images

The Transocean, part of the fleet that used remote-controlled submarines to place a tube into the leaking riser on the Gulf of Mexico seabed, May 14, 2010

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 — killing 11 workers and beginning a catastrophic spill — just about everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. The blowout preventer that should have stopped the spill from happening at all failed on multiple levels, as did a later attempt to shut down the leak manually using undersea robots. An attempt to place a 100-ton containment dome over the leaking pipes a little more than a week ago failed as well. Even as the energy giant BP — which is financially responsible for both the spill and the response — has struggled to slow the leak, it has also had to help prepare the Gulf coastline for a tide of oil.

But on Sunday, BP finally caught a break. The company successfully managed to thread a mile-long tube into the broken remnants of the oil pipe on the ocean floor, 5,000 feet below the surface. Using the tube, the company has been able to siphon about 1,000 barrels of oil a day to a drilling ship on the surface, and it eventually hopes to be able to capture about twice that much. At a press conference Monday afternoon, Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, said that 2,000 barrels a day would be "half or more of the total flow," though he added that BP can't be sure of the exact rate of the spill. Indeed it can't. A number of independent scientists — working from the only short video clip of the underwater spill BP has provided — believe as much as 70,000 barrels of oil or more could be leaking each day, which would mean the Deepwater Horizon accident has long since passed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

However much oil is gushing from the broken pipe, 2,000 barrels flowing up the tube is still 2,000 barrels not spilling into the Gulf. And though this temporary fix won't do anything to close the well, it does represent real progress. "This will diminish the leak," said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry at the Monday press conference, "but it won't completely end it."

To do that, BP will next try what's called a top kill, which involves pumping heavy drilling fluid — a synthetic compound that is heavier than both oil and water — into the blowout preventer, which sits over the well, smothering the leaking oil. If the maneuver, which is planned for sometime this week, works, the company will follow the drilling fluid with cement. "That should stop the well," said Suttles. "We intend to fill it up with cement and then we'll never produce from it."

Of course, there's no guarantee that the top kill will work — the sheer depth of the well has made every effort to seal it incredibly challenging. If it does fail, BP will likely have to fall back on a relief well currently being drilled next to the blown well. That should work — it's been done in similar circumstances elsewhere — but it will likely take months to complete.

In the meantime, BP and the Coast Guard — along with Gulf-state officials and thousands of volunteers — are continuing the fight against the oil on the surface, corralling and burning off parts of the slick and skimming some of what remains. Not much oil has made it to shore, thanks to friendly winds and currents and the strong outflow from the Mississippi River. "The good news is that the weather has been kind to us, and we are expecting a great week for cleanup," said Landry. "We'll work to fight this offshore for as long as possible."

But just what is happening offshore — and just as importantly, beneath the water — is far from clear. A group of scientists who spent two weeks exploring the spill area in a research ship reported over the weekend that they found what could be massive plumes of oil spreading beneath the surface, out of sight, where oxygen levels were unusually low. "Nothing like it has really ever been seen in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico before," Samantha Joye, a marine scientist at the University of Georgia and a member of the research team, told CNN Monday morning. "It is not only a large feature, but it's a very complex feature. There's a lot of vertical structure to it."

If there is indeed a large amount of oil spreading beneath the water, it could explain why the surface slick itself doesn't seem to be growing even though the oil keeps coming. "These huge plumes of oil are like hidden mushroom clouds that indicate a larger spill than originally thought and portend a more dangerous long-term fallout for the Gulf of Mexico's wildlife and economy," said Democratic Congressman Edward Markey on May 16. BP is "burying its head in the sand" on the magnitude of the spill.

But Jane Lubchenco, the respected marine scientist in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the lead scientific agency on the spill — cautioned against drawing premature conclusions on the possible oil plumes. The research team hasn't yet been able to analyze samples from the formations so it's not clear how much oil might actually be in them, and the low oxygen levels recorded by the scientists aren't low enough to be a source of concern. "Until the flow of oil is stemmed, we must take every responsible action to reduce the impact of the oil," Lubchenco said in a statement.

Despite the small measure of success over the weekend, the heat keeps building on BP. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and seven other Senators on Monday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether BP had made misleading claims to the government about its ability to stop an oil spill when it applied for permission to drill the well last year. But the Obama Administration is coming in for criticism as well: the Interior Department official charged with overseeing offshore drilling will reportedly resign at the end of the month, and the White House has decided to create an independent presidential commission to investigate the accident. "The BP oil spill is a stark reminder of how we must continue to push ahead with the reforms we have been working on," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday, who will face his own tough questioning from Congress later this week. For the crisis to end, BP will need still more luck in the Gulf — and so will the folks in Washington.