(BP oil spill story update for Obama remarks in Gulf region)
WASHINGTON D.C. (TheStreet) -- BP (BP) - Get Report is not ready to call the top kill a success, but there were consecutive indications on Thursday and Friday that the top kill was showing some signs of effectiveness in slowing the oil spill.**
There were indications that the top kill was finding a worthy foe in the pressure of oil and gas coming out of the BP well.
Whether the BP top kill will ultimately slow the oil leaking from the Gulf of Mexico for long enough to cement the well shut permanently remains an open question, and BP said on Friday that it could be two days before it has the answer.
Late on Thursday, the top kill had to be abandoned temporarily when too much of the heavy drilling mud that had seemed effective earlier in the day was overcome by the pressure coming out of the leaking well, and too much of the mud was forced back into the Gulf waters. BP said it will now add materials that were to be used in its "junk shot" -- another method to counter pressure coming out of the well by injecting materials into it -- as part of the top kill. The "junk" materials include scrap rubber.
Late on Friday afternoon, the
New York Times
reported that BP yet again had to suspend the top kill.
President Obama spoke for the second consecutive day about the BP oil spill on Friday afternoon, after completing his "on the ground" in the Gulf region photo op, kneeling on a Louisiana beach to inspect a tar ball.
President Obama echoed similar themes from Thursday's White House press conference, adding a gloss that spoke specifically to the concerns and harm already done to the people of the Gulf Coast region, and the "assault on our shores, our people, our regional economies and communities. People's livelihoods are washing up on the beach," the president said.
Watch a live video feed from BP's underwater oil spill cam
In speaking about BP's ongoing top kill effort, Obama phrased his words in the terms of the top kill that "the federal government authorized BP to use" a hint of the government's effort to show who really is wearing the pants in the oil spill effort as criticism lingers that the federal government had ceded too much control to BP.
The President noted that the cleanup effort is the largest ever in the nation's history, and that the federal government had advanced equipment in the Gulf on day one after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, hundreds of vessels stationed in the Gulf within days of the oil spill crisis worsening, 20,000 people working around the clock, and more than three million cubic feet of boom in place, with 100, 000 more cubic feet of boom on the way. Yet in referring to the oil spill cleanup effort as the largest-ever, President Obama's words also served as a reminder that it is the largest cleanup effort ever because it is the largest oil spill ever in the country's history.
It may seem like "top kill" is a better name for a reality TV show about big game hunters or a straight to DVD movie, but all of BP's previous efforts to stop the oil from gushing out of the leaking underwater well have failed.
The President also sought to take control of the fact that so much hope rides on BP's technical attempts, like the top kill -- and the fact that the federal government has not had a large enough presence in these efforts -- to stop the underwater gusher. Obama said that even if the top kill fails, the White House has the top scientists and engineers in the world working on contingency plans for the oil spill, led by Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu. Obama has liked saying the words "Nobel Prize winner" more and more in the BP oil crisis, as he once loved to say "I have spoken to Warren Buffett" every time he sought to calm the U.S. public during the financial crisis.
As part of his regular course in speaking about the BP oil spill, the President said that BP -- and any other companies found to be responsible for the spill -- will be held to all legal and financial claims for the enormous damage they have created. For the second consecutive day, the President assumed the ultimate blame for the oil spill, saying, "I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis. I am the president; the buck stops with me," President Obama said, as the call of seabirds hovered above his words.
A Gallup poll from Thursday found that 53% of American though Obama's performance on the BP oil spill was "poor" or "very poor". The President is still comfortably ahead of BP -- which was rated "poor" or "very poor" by 73% of surveyed -- but the margin has diminished.
On Thursday morning, the highest level of confidence in the BP top kill had surfaced in comments from U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral, Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the oil spill. Allen told the
Los Angeles Times
that the top kill had worked and BP would next be putting a final cement plug over the leaking underwater well. Previously, the Coast Guard official had been more guarded in his optimism, saying late on Wednesday that the lack of bad news in the top kill effort was encouraging news, and that the top kill plan was proceeding according to plan. By Friday morning Allen had to backtrack.
Throughout the BP oil spill crisis and all of the previous failed attempts by BP to stop the gushing oil, BP officials have floated confidence across the airwaves while buying time for more unproven methods to stop the gusher 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. While BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles showed an unusually impartial side this week -- saying that BP could not be either pessimistic or optimistic about the top kill. "We have not stopped the flow," Suttles said. BP CEO Tony Hayward continues to put the chances of success at 60% to 70%.
On Friday morning, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Allen was saying on national television that the biggest challenge for the top kill was to sustain the pressure from the heavy drilling mud flooding into the well. The Coast Guard Rear Admiral did a good job of sustaining optimism in the BP top kill on Thursday morning in the lead up to President Obama's press conference.
BP has had no shortage of potential oil-spill containment techniques; it was just short of one that has been proven at a depth of 5,000 feet, or is comprehensive in attacking the root problem of the leaking underwater well.
BP CEO Hayward was on national TV on Friday, saying the top kill was "going pretty well according to plan."
The Coast Guard's Allen said on Friday morning that the next 12 hours to 18 hours will be critical in judging the BP top kill. BP said it might not be until Sunday. Yet, on Thursday, BP CEO Hayward had said that a definitive judgment of the top kill would be available by the end of the day Thursday. Time, as usual, is relative in the BP oil spill effort.
The Coast Guard Rear Admiral also delivered some distressing news amid his hopeful comments on the top kill, saying the new estimate for how much oil has been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is between 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day, well above the previous, heavily criticized estimate of only 5,000 barrels. BP CEO Tony Hayward did indicate on Thursday morning that there would be a definitive judgment on the top kill some time on Thursday.
On Wednesday, at 2 p.m. ET, BP said it began pumping heavy drilling mud into the underwater well, located 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. BP had conducted early morning tests on the failed blowout preventer to determine if the timing was right to go ahead with the top kill. BP said that tests involved pumping drilling fluids into the blowout preventer to measure pressure and flow paths.
Shortly after the U.S. Coast Guard signed off on the top kill early on Wednesday afternoon, BP said the process had begun. However, BP cautioned that it could take up to two days before the top kill's success or failure can be measured, and for those watching the live video feed, it would be difficult to judge the success of the top kill by immediate changes in the flow rate of oil and gas from the well.
The pressure coming from the underwater well is the enemy combatant for the top kill. An engine on a surface ship will shoot thousands of pounds of heavy drilling fluids, or about 50,000 barrels, into a five-story pipe to plug the well.
BP has another of its previously ineffective dome strategies ready to go if the top kill fails. The top of the failed blowout preventer would be cut and a dome inserted over it -- temporarily releasing even more oil and gas into the Gulf -- but ultimately siphoning off more of the leaking oil.
Nevertheless, top kill failure could mean months more of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. If the top kill doesn't work, the brute force of the heavy mud being pumped into the well could itself lead to damage that would increase the rate of the leaking oil.
BP acquiesced to government demands to make a live video feed of the top kill available, after having said on Tuesday that it would shut down the live video feed during the top kill effort. You can watch animation of how the top kill is intended to work below...
Last week, BP first made a live video feed of the leaking underwater well, located 5,000 beneath the Gulf of Mexico surface, available to the public after requests from Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) The video began playing on the House's climate web site, late last week at globalwarming.house.gov.
Watch a live video feed from BP's underwater oil spill cam
BP 's top kill, or what Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described as a "dynamic kill," would force drilling mud into the well through the failed blowout preventer. Once the pressure from the gusher was overcome, the well would be cemented shut.
The pressure from the government and the American public has mounted, too. President Obama environmental advisor Carol Browner said on Monday that the BP oil spill was going to go down as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. "I don't think there is any doubt, unfortunately," Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said on Monday.
President Obama announced shortly after midday Thursday a formal ban on any offshore drilling in U.S. waters for at least six months, and it will remain in place until the cause of the BP oil spill is learned, and new environmental and safety procedures are put in place for all drillers.
President Obama used his early afternoon press conference on Thursday to hit home key administration points: the federal government has made the BP oil spill a priority from day one, recognized "the potential enormity" of the oil spill from day one, and will make sure the BP pays for every cent of the oil spill containment and cleanup -- and, in the end, the government does not have better technology than BP which would allow it to push BP aside in the oil spill cleanup effort.
President Obama did concede on some mistakes made, saying the government did not have an advanced response team ready for a worst-case scenario oil spill, but also said that there has been a historic complacency about worst-case scenarios.
The President was asked whether he regretted his decision to authorize an expansion of offshore drilling for the first time in decades, and Obama used the attack from the press as a chance to express his overarching energy policy -- that deep sea oil drilling with higher risk and higher costs to oil companies shows that the oil industry is in its "last days" and the U.S. needs to transition to a clean energy model, but that transition will require domestic oil production, and less reliance on foreign oil. Obama also had a catch phrase for an infamous drilling catch phrase, telling the press, "I never said "Drill, Baby, Drill!'"
There is more riding on each effort from BP as its options dwindle. The Obama Administration has been applying "a boot to BP's neck" to counter criticism that the federal government's response has been weak. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said that the "boot" may soon move from BP's neck to the oil company's rear-end if it continues to fail in its effort to contain the oil spill. Yet a senior U.S. Coast Guard office posed a rhetorical question at a White House press conference that no one could answer: if BP is replaced, who would they be replaced by?
BP could face a federal government action barring it from ever again operating as a U.S. driller, in the worst-case scenario for the company.
Louisiana shore lines are under siege from heavy crude oil, and the state's fishing industry is in a state of economic crisis with fishing waters shut down as the oil spill continues unabated.
The list of BP's failed efforts to control the oil spill don't inspire confidence, even as BP officials keep putting their most optimistic face forward in the press.
It looked like it could have been the beginning of the end of the BP oil spill last week, on Sunday, May 16, when the oil company finally had its first success in its attempt to contain the gushing underwater well.
BP inserted a mile-long pipe into the well last week and began siphoning off some of the oil to a drillship on the surface of the Gulf. The 6-inch small tube was inserted into a seafloor pipe that is 21 inches wide pipe. The small tube, surrounded with a stopper, began funneling oil directly from the leak to a drillship on the surface, as the hope had been for both the large dome and the top hat strategies.
BP had been upping its estimate of the tube's success every day last week. By last Thursday, BP said it was capturing 5,000 barrels a day with the siphon -- a seminal announcement, since it threw into question company's previous statements that 5,000 barrels a day was its best estimate for the total size of the oil spill.
Comments made last week by BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, now seem like nothing more than the latest addition in a long line of public relations-driven salvos, not supported by the facts. BP CEO Hayward had said last Monday, May 17, "I do feel that we have, for the first time, turned the corner in this challenge."
Yet by Friday, May 21, BP said the pipe was not even collecting as much oil as it had been siphoning off earlier in the week. By Monday, May 24, all the focus had turned to the BP the "top kill."
The damage to BP's market value and the market value of the other companies involved in the oil spill --
-- has already reached $100 billion.
The "junk shot" that BP has been discussing for several days already -- firing rubber or other junk material directly into the leaking well -- might be attempted in conjunction with the "top kill," and, if successful, it could make other measures easier to carry out.
If the top kill doesn't work, BP already has its next strategy on deck and ready to provide another round of, if nothing more, short-term optimism. BP would next turn to what it calls a "LMRP cap containment option" which would remove a damaged portion of the well and replace it with a tube meant to siphon oil directly from the leak. This strategy is expected to be ready by the end of the week.
The 100-ton concrete-and-steel contraption known as the dome -- BP's biggest failure -- was supposed to be able to contain as much as 85% of the oil spill. There were hopeful images of BP CEO Tony Hayward watching over the construction of the massive dome weeks ago, but the dome was no match for nature -- ice crystals formed within the dome and made it impossible for the contraption to capture the leaking oil.
A smaller version of the dome, called a "top hat" was in place a few weeks ago, but then BP shifted its focus to the small tube that had limited success last week. So just as quickly as the "top hat" seemed ready to don itself and rescue the day, BP officials said they planned to temporarily put the "top hat" back on the rack, and it has not been heard about since.
The small tube was originally designed to work in concert with the top hat -- serving as its "cane", so to speak -- but BP was worried that the same ice crystal formation that doomed the large dome could doom the top hat too.
Ultimately, BP will be able to drill a relief well that will serve as a permanent containment of the oil spill, but that means the oil could be leaking into the Gulf of Mexico until August.
However, BP noted in a recent regulatory filing that the relief well drilling could cause a blowout that releases as much as 240,000 barrels of oil a day into the ocean. BP CEO Hayward has been downplaying this risk, saying it is only a worst-case scenario, but Hayward's comments have been a little "too rosy" throughout the oil spill. A blowout of that size would equal two-thirds the supply pumped daily from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Based on the mid-range of estimates released by the Flow Rate Technical Group this week, the BP well may have leaked about 527,000 barrels into the Gulf of Mexico, which would be almost twice the 262,000 barrels spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, and would also make it the worst oil spill in U.S. history, which the White House had already conceded it was earlier in the week.
Oil Spill in Pictures
-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.
Follow TheStreet.com on
and become a fan on
Copyright 2009 TheStreet.com Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.