BP officials announced another plan to capture the crude oil that's gushing from a mangled well in the Gulf of Mexico as Louisiana authorities prepared for a massive oil slick.
WASHINGTON — As they prepared to deal with political fallout on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, BP and its contractors scrambled Monday to develop fresh ways to battle the undersea geyser that has pumped about 4 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The latest proposed fix, dubbed a “top hat,” is a smaller version of the 100-ton dome that failed over the weekend when heated gas from the well and cold formed slushy hydrate crystals that gummed up the works.
The smaller dimensions of the new steel box, which weighs 2 tons and could be in place within 72 hours, will allow heat from the spurting oil to build up in the interior much more quickly, the company said, preventing hydrates from forming and allowing the oil, water and gas mixture to more easily flow up a pipe to a waiting ship.
David Valentine, a University of California, Santa Barbara, geochemist who has studied the formation of hydrates in deep ocean waters, said the smaller dome should solve the temperature problem.
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But Valentine expressed concern that the “top hat” might not be heavy enough to offset the buoyant effects of the captured gas. “Two tons seems a bit light to me,” he said in an e-mail.
BP also is working on two other fronts to stop the gusher. In one, known as a “hot tap,” a hole is drilled in another part of the pipe and a connector is constructed to draw the oil out. Another option is to stop the source of the flow at the well head with a “junk shot” — forcing heavy materials into the broken apparatus to stop it up like a clogged toilet.
The leading edge of the oil slick appeared to be less than 10 miles from parts of the southern Louisiana coast Monday, and southeasterly winds this week could push some oil onshore in remote areas Tuesday, forecasters said.
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, at the incident command center in Mobile, Ala., said 24 national wildlife refuges and seven national-park units could be affected by the spill. About 15 oiled birds have been treated.
The White House disclosed Monday that it has lent Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist, to the BP effort to restart the failed blowout preventer in the crippled Deepwater Horizon rig.
Chu, a former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has dispatched a team of senior officials from national labs to BP’s operations center in Houston. For the past 10 days, the lab team has worked with the aid of national laboratory supercomputers to figure out what’s wrong with the blowout preventer, responsible for cutting off oil flow in the event of an accident.
The oil spill will be center stage on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as industry officials face what is likely to be tough questioning from the Senate’s energy and environment committees.
Meanwhile, in Kenner, La., the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling in federal water, are launching two days of hearings into the cause and environmental impact.
The energy committee, headed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is considered industry friendly. Even in the face of potential devastation to her state, committee member Mary Landrieu, D-La., has cautioned against overreaction.
The scene is likely to be different at the environment committee hearing, chaired by Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Boxer, in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, often has been at odds with the industry and has pushed for cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels.
The hearings are only the beginning for Congress as it cranks up its oversight machinery. No fewer than seven congressional panels are conducting investigations.
One goal is to determine what kind of legislation is necessary to prevent future spills, and among those mentioned would be to increase industry liability for spills and reinstitute a ban on new offshore drilling.
Some finger-pointing appears likely. Steven Newman, chief executive officer of Transocean, which owned and operated the rig and performed the drilling under contract with BP, said in his written testimony that the focus should look beyond the failure of the supposedly fail-safe blowout preventer to “why a cased and cemented wellbore suddenly and catastrophically failed.”
Tim Probert, president of Halliburton’s global business lines, which did the cementing, said in his testimony that the company was confident that its cementing work was completed “in accordance with the requirements of the well owner’s well construction plan.”
So far, BP says it has spent $350 million battling the spill, including $3.5 million to pay 295 of 4,700 claims it has received for economic damages.
The British oil giant is required to cover economic damages up to $75 million, but legislation has been introduced to increase that cap to $10 billion.