BP postpones ′top-kill′ plans | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 25.05.2010
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BP postpones 'top-kill' plans

Frustration is growing and patience wearing thin as BP prepares for yet another attempt this week at plugging a deepwater well that has been spewing massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the past month.

A sign protesting BP and the oil spill

More and more people are speaking out against BP

BP has pushed back its next effort at a permanent solution to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, a "top-kill" procedure by which it hopes to fill the leak with heavy mud and cement, to early Wednesday morning. BP chief executive Tony Hayward, visiting the Gulf Coast on Monday, told reporters there was a 60 to70 percent chance the procedure would work. Safety concerns have already pushed the top-kill back from its original weekend start date.

Workers try to clean up oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill along the shores of Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, Louisiana

Workers have been trying to keep the oil from reaching land

Like most of BP's solutions, the top-kill has never been tried 1.5 kilometres (one mile) under water, where the leak is located. Hayward said people had to be "realistic about the issues of operating" under those circumstances. But US government and local officials have grown skeptical of BP's efforts to cap the well, which ruptured after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 and sunk to the ocean floor.

"We hope it works, but we don't want to hope unrealistically," said US Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano during her own visit to Louisiana's coastline, where delicate marshlands could be destroyed by the looming oil slick.

Napolitano said she could understand the region's "frustration, anger, disappointment" with the continuing threat and sought to assure residents that the federal government would remain on BP's case.

Theoretical options

Shortly after the oil platform exploded, and it was still unknown exactly how much oil would be let loose into the environment, experts were still optimistic about the situation. Diving robots were sent beneath the waves to plug up the leak, but after days of unsuccessful attempts, it was determined that something else would have to be done.

The drill ship Discoverer Enterprise burning natural gas from the oil spill

Natural gas from the spill is burned by the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise

According to Lorenz Schwark, a geologist at the University of Kiel in northern Germany, there are theoretically other ways to put an end to a massive oil leak - and the damage it has caused the environment - than just plugging it up.

The first two options, said Schwark, are to either skim the oil off the surface of the water when its just a small spill, or, in the event of a larger spill, use chemical agents to bind it into balls of tar that would then sink to the bottom of the sea - a tactic that could potentially lead to further complications, since the balls stay in the environment for decades.

"There is also the option of lighting the oil on fire," he told Deutsche Welle. "Of course that should only be done when the oil slick is contained and a controlled burn can be assured."

But burning off the oil is only really a viable option shortly after an accident, and then only when the seas are calm. In addition to that, the oil slick has to be a certain thickness for it even to catch fire. And this, according to Schwark, is exactly why a fire didn't work in this situation.

Several attempts - all failures

Over the past several weeks BP has tried other attempts at containing the deluge. Each one met with disaster. Barriers put around the slick were either destroyed or made useless by bad weather and large waves. An initial attempt to lower a four-story metal container into the sea and place it over the main leak was hindered by ice crystals, while a second attempt was postponed.

Oil is scooped out of a marsh impacted by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Redfish Bay along the coast of Louisiana

So much oil has inundated marshes and wetlands that it can now be scooped out with cups

The most promising solution has been siphoning the crude oil by placing a smaller pipe into the larger damaged pipe leading from the damaged wellhead. The oil and gas travel up a 1.6 kilometer tube to the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship, which separates the oil, gas and water, storing the oil and burning off the natural gas. BP senior executive vice-president Kent Wells told German news agency dpa that he could not say how much had been collected so far.

The pressure is mounting to deal with the leak. According to Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal, about 110 kilometers of the southern state's coastline have now been touched by oil, though the bulk of the heavy oil slick is still looming off its shores.

"This oil fundamentally threatens our way of life here in south Louisiana," said Jindal, who joined Napolitano and a half-dozen US lawmakers on a flight over the oil slick Monday.

BP CEO Hayward said BP had offered 500 million dollars to independent researchers in order to study and better react to the impact of the oil spill on Louisiana's fragile marine environment.

"The defense of the shoreline at this point has not been successful," Hayward said. "I feel terrible about that."

Editor: Holly Fox

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