BP Makes Progress on Spill, Less on Restoring Trust

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Tannen Maury / EPA

A rainbow forms around a capture rig as gas and oil are brought up from the oil-spill site off the coast of Louisiana on June 5, 2010

Drilling engineers like to say that oil and gas wells have personalities — and that they always need to be treated with care. The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in the Macondo prospect in the Gulf of Mexico when an explosion sank the rig on April 20, triggering a spill that has spewed up to 40 million gal. of oil into the sea, with more flowing every day. In the weeks since, the energy giant BP has tried multiple ways to close the partially blown well — top hats, containment domes, tube insertions, junk shots, top kills — and has failed every time, as if the out-of-control well doesn't want to cooperate.

But over the weekend, officials at BP and the Coast Guard finally seemed optimistic — though cautiously — that they may have been able to figure out a way to significantly reduce the leak. After successfully shearing the broken riser pipe over the wellhead and fitting a containment cap over the leak late last week, BP has been able to steadily divert some of the oil flow to tankers on the surface. By Sunday, BP was reporting that it was managing to pump 10,000 bbl. of oil a day, with hopes that the amount would increase as the company adds an additional containment unit by next weekend and works out engineering kinks 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. "When those two [systems] are in place, we would very much hope to contain the vast majority of the oil," BP CEO Tony Hayward told the BBC early Sunday.

But while Coast Guard officials seemed optimistic over what's known as the Lower Marine Rise Package (LMRP) cap, they sounded a note of caution — with good reason. The LMRP initially appeared slow to catch a lot of the oil leak because BP kept several vents on the cap open. That allowed oil to escape, but it also prevented freezing cold seawater from flowing into the cap. When that happened to an earlier attempt at using a containment dome, icy hydrates formed, clogging the domes and forcing the operation to be scrapped.

BP is attempting to close those vents gradually, but it's a delicate process: do it too fast and the entire procedure could fail again. (The company is also pumping methanol down to the cap, commonly used in deep-sea drilling to prevent the formation of hydrates.) But as long as the vents remain open, oil is still flowing into the Gulf. "I'm hoping we can catch as much oil as we can, but I'm withholding comment until production is at a full rate," said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the top federal official on the spill response, on CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday.

But it remains difficult for reporters or other outside observers to accurately gauge just how well BP is doing because we still don't know with certainty exactly how much oil is spilling out of the well. That figure rose from 1,000 bbl. a day (BP's first estimate) to 5,000 bbl. a day (a government estimate) in the early days of the spill. Despite heavy skepticism from independent experts who saw far more oil pouring out of the well on live underwater video feeds, which were reluctantly provided by BP, that estimate stood until the government finally convened an outside analysis group, which gave two estimates based on different models: between 12,000 and 19,000 bbl. of oil a day, and between 12,000 and 25,000 bbl. a day.

And at least one expert on the panel, University of California at Santa Barbara marine scientist Ira Leifer, has said that even those numbers are at the lower range of estimates from scientists and that the true flow could be multiples higher than 12,000 bbl. a day. In addition, when BP's underwater robots cut the riser pipe (they had to use rougher shears after a precise diamond saw got stuck during the cut) on June 3, the operation might have increased the leak by as much as 20%, according to Allen. All of this means that BP will almost certainly need to capture a lot more than 10,000 bbl. a day to get the "vast majority" of the oil, until we get a firmer fix on the true leak rate.

The problem is that both media and the government are still dependent on BP for those figures, and after weeks of downplaying the true extent of the spill, the company simply doesn't have much credibility left. On Saturday, for instance, BP told reporters in a media call that it has not denied any of the thousands of compensation claims made by fishermen and other Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill. Yet there have been complaints about slow payments, and Louisiana is demanding that BP make its claim database public, a sign of just how little trust seems to remain. Nor does the company appear to be making progress on public relations: a Florida minor league baseball team on Saturday announced that it was changing "batting practice" to "batting rehearsal," so players wouldn't have to utter the letters BP.

Even if BP does succeed in sharply reducing the spill rate, the well won't be fully tamed until the company can build relief wells to finally seal the leak, which likely won't be completed until August. In the meantime, oil has continued to wash along the marshes of Louisiana and is now moving over to Alabama and Mississippi, while tar balls have appeared on the beaches of Florida. The state is "as ready as it can be," Florida Governor Charlie Crist said on CNN on Sunday. "We're just trying to do the very best we can with the resources we have."

What's certain is that the battle will continue — underwater and on shore — for weeks and months. "This is a war," Allen said on ABC on Sunday. "This is an insidious war." And whether we can ultimately win that war will depend on the Macondo prospect — which just happens to share the name of the cursed town on which Gabriela García Márquez's classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude centers. And what happens to Macondo at the end of the novel? It is destroyed — by a hurricane.