MOBILE, Ala. (Dow Jones)
BP PLC (BP) said Saturday its latest effort to contain a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by siphoning crude from the deepwater well faced an initial setback, but could be operational overnight.
The U.K. oil giant is trying to reduce the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf by threading a tube into broken piping coming from the well. The tube would carry oil to a tanker at the surface, stemming at least 5,000 barrels of oil leaking into the Gulf a day.
During a press briefing, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said an initial attempt to put the tube in place a mile beneath the surface was unsuccessful, with crews pulling the equipment back to the surface. The company is making a second attempt Saturday. BP had planned to begin siphoning oil by now, but warned the process is challenging at such depths.
"It reflects the reality they are working in," Suttles said.
Engineers for more than three weeks have been trying to contain the leak caused by the April 20 explosion and sinking, two days later, of Transocean Ltd.'s (RIG) Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which was finishing a well for BP. Eleven members of the crew were killed by the blast, and the spill threatens shores of several Gulf Coast states.
BP turned to the siphon plan after a containment dome lowered over the well failed a week ago. The company has a smaller containment dome known as the "top hat" on the ocean floor as a backup to its current effort.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said a group of top scientists led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu plan to meet Sunday to continue working to stop the deepwater leak.
"We feel the pain. We are frustrated," Salazar said during the press briefing.
Engineers are working on a system to stop the flow of oil, which is expected to be ready by the end of next week. These options include a "junk shot," whereby a variety of materials including tire pieces, knots of rope and other items would be sent down to clog the leak. The company is drilling a relief well that is seen as the ultimate solution to stop the spill, but that is scheduled to take months.
Also on Saturday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Salazar released a letter to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward asking him for a clear understanding of the company's commitment to pay for damages from the spill. The U.S. secretaries wrote that their understanding is the company will not rely on a federal liability cap or seek reimbursement from the U.S. government or an oil spill liability trust fund.
A BP spokesman said in an e-mail that the company "will respond directly" to the authors of the letter.
Rough waters and stormy weather hampered offshore cleanup efforts on Saturday. Crews were unable to sweep offshore waters or execute controlled burns. They did use chemical dispersants in deep waters to break the oil into smaller droplets, allowing microbes in the water to break it up. The chemicals in the past were only used on the water's surface, but the Coast Guard said Friday the Environmental Protection Agency had approved underwater use.
At the news conference, BP's Suttles said the dispersants appeared to be working. A fly-over Saturday indicated the amount of oil on the water's surface near the well had "diminished," he told reporters.
Environmental groups are worried dispersants in deep water might harm sea life, but Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry played down those concerns Saturday. "This is not done by willy-nilly," she told reporters, referring to the government's decision to give the green light.
Suttles said less dispersant needs to be used under the surface of the water to clean up the spill than if it is applied on the surface.
Landry played down concerns that the well is leaking far more oil than the roughly 5,000 barrels a day that authorities have been estimating until now. "We have a very good handle on the oil we're dealing with," she told reporters.
Tar balls, seen as a possible leading edge of the spill, increasingly have washed ashore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in recent days. But Landry said they still weren't common. "It's a few places," she said.
The Coast Guard has reported oil sheen at the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana. The spill is hitting the offshore fishing industry and keeping tourists away from the area.
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