By Ed Pikington, Guardian
BP enjoyed the first hint of good news in the 44-day Deepwater Horizon crisis today when it succeeded in cutting the pipe from which up to 19,000 gallons of oil are spewing each day.
The cut, achieved through the use of giant shears, opened the prospect of a container device, known as a "top hat," being lowered over the pipe in the hope of siphoning off much of the gushing oil and gas to tankers on the ocean surface. Thad Allen, the retired US coast guard admiral who is leading the government’s response to the disaster, called the development a "significant step forward."
However, he was careful not to present the move in over-optimistic terms, as major hurdles still remain. Crucially, the cut achieved by the shears was much more jagged than had been hoped — an earlier attempt to make a smooth break using a diamond-studded saw failed when the equipment jammed.
As a result of the jagged cut, the seal that can be secured between the damaged pipe and the container funnel that will be placed over it to collect the out-pouring oil will be less snug than desirable, and thus more prone to leakage. Allen said it was impossible at this stage to predict how much leaking oil there would be, as it would depend on how tightly a seal inside the container cap could be applied.
"This is one step back from the best cap we could get," he said in his daily briefing on the disaster response.
The prospect of a possible reduction in the rate of oil spewing from the stricken well comes none too soon for the parties involved in the catastrophe. To underline how seriously he is taking the unfolding disaster, the White House announced that Barack Obama would make his third visit to the Gulf region tomorrow just one week after his previous tour of oil-polluted beaches in Louisiana.
BP is also desperately in need of good news after a succession of failed attempts to kill and contain the oil spill. Tony Hayward, the oil giant’s chief executive, has come under increasing pressure following a series of controversial comments, including the admission to the Financial Times that the firm had been unprepared for a deepwater spill of this sort and lacked the tools needed to deal with it.
Calls for Hayward’s resignation have also mounted, including from family members of some of the 11 workers who died in the 20 April explosion, after he said at the weekend, "I want my life back." He later apologized for the remark.
Attention has started to swing towards the east as a result of prevailing winds that are blowing tar balls and oil sheen towards sand islands off the coast of Mississippi and Alabama. Pristine beaches along the coast of Florida around the Panhandle are now also imperiled, with oil sheen spotted just six miles out to sea.
The governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, sounded a note of alarm when he told reporters from the Miami Herald:
"We need to respond. We need to protect our state."
Meanwhile, Allen has ordered BP to pay for five additional sand barriers to protect the coast of Louisiana. BP said the project would cost it about $360 million, on top of about $990 million it had spent on response and clean up, grants to four Gulf coast states and claims from people and companies hurt by the spill.
BP engineers were preparing to lower the container cap over the well pipe this afternoon, though it might take a while before it is known how successful the operation has been. Even if the seal is good, the pressure of the oil being forced up from under the sea bed could still squeeze it out of the container and into the ocean.
The disaster has put huge political pressure on the Obama administration, forcing the president to divert his attention away from other pressing problems, notably job creation and the wider economy. There has been speculation of growing hostility between the US government and BP, though Allen insisted relations remained positive.
"There are a lot of ways you can define trust," he said, adding: "When I have a discussion with anybody, including Tony Hayward, my expectation is that they will do what I have asked."
(Republished with permission of the Guardian)
(Image: Deepwater Horizon Response team )