BP Takes a First Step Toward Capping the Leak

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BP / Reuters

A saw mounted on a remotely operated undersea vehicle cuts through the riser pipe at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

To say that BP has been unlucky in its attempts to stem the oil leak in the Gulf would be charitable. Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, about the only positive outcome of BP's several failed attempts to close the partially blown well gushing 5,000 feet below the surface has been a rich addition to the American vocabulary: blowout preventer, top hat, top kill, junk shot, tar mat, boom. And while BP has struggled to end the mess it helped create, at least 20 million gallons of oil, and perhaps far more, have flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.

But on Thursday morning, the besieged energy giant finally had something to cheer about — at least for now. Technicians operating remote-controlled undersea robots managed to cut a riser pipe over the bleeding wellhead, a successful first step in BP's latest effort to contain the oil leak. That should allow the company to attempt to place a containment cap over the cut pipe, which would then enable it to siphon off much of the oil directly to tanker ships on the surface. The cut is a "significant step forward," said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the head of the federal spill response, at a press conference Thursday. "I'm pleased to report that."

If the procedure works, the vast majority of the leaking oil would be captured and diverted — exactly how much could depend on the quality of the seal between the severed pipe and the containment cap. Unsurprisingly, however, there have already been hiccups in the plan. BP's robots on Wednesday had been using a diamond saw to make a perfect cut in the pipe, which would have allowed a tight seal with the containment cap. But the diamond saw got stuck part of the way through the cut, slowing the process. "Anybody that has ever used a saw knows every once in a while it will bind up," Allen told reporters. "Not unlike if you were sawing through a piece of wood and every once in a while it binds up."

The robot lumberjacks were able to free the saw eventually, but it had been so dulled in the process that BP's engineers had to finish the job — making a second cut — with 20-foot long shears. The pipe was successfully severed Thursday, but the cut was somewhat rough, raising the risk of oil escaping once the containment cap is put into place. It also increases the likelihood that the cap itself could fill with icy hydrates (crystals of gas and water), which form in cold water under high pressure. That's what foiled one of BP's earlier efforts to stop the leak, when hydrates made a 125-ton containment dome too buoyant to hold over the busted pipes. And until the cap is put in place — which could be as soon as the end of Thursday — the oil will be leaking at increased volume, perhaps by up to 20% greater, because of the wider cut of the riser pipe. "None of this has ever been done before, so there's always risk," said BP CEO Tony Hayward in a press conference Thursday afternoon. "The next 12 to 24 hours will give us an indication of how successful the attempt will be."

BP needs this method to be a success — and so does the threatened Gulf coastline. If it fails, oil may continue to spill until August, when two relief wells are expected to become operational, allowing BP to plug the original well with mud and cement. Every day the well goes uncapped, the oil spill grows, putting more of the Gulf coastline at risk. The Louisiana wetlands have already been hit hard, and oil has been seen on the beaches of Mississippi, while tar balls have washed up in Alabama. Next could be the tourist-friendly beaches of Pensacola in Florida. They remain clear for now, but an analysis by the blog Wonk Room found evidence that the oil spill was leaking into Florida fishing waters. And a study released Thursday by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) predicted that ocean currents could eventually carry the oil as far as the Atlantic coast. "Our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood," said NCAR scientist Synte Peacock in a statement.

Much of that will depend on how much longer the leak continues. In a video message released on YouTube Thursday — backed by the sound of water lapping and seagulls — Hayward said that BP is "taking full responsibility for cleaning up the spill." "I'm deeply sorry," he added. "We will make this right." Capping the well would be a start.