BP launches untried procedure in bid to plug underwater well

BP has launched its latest bid to plug the gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico by force-feeding it heavy drilling mud, a manoeuvre never before tried 5,000ft underwater.

The oil giant’s chief executive gave the procedure, known as a top kill, a 60% to 70% chance of working, and US president Barack Obama cautioned yesterday that there were “no guarantees”.

BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said the company would pump mud for hours, and officials have indicated it may be a couple of days before they know whether the procedure is working.

The top kill involves pumping enough mud into the gusher to overcome the flow of the well, and engineers plan to follow it up with cement to try to permanently seal the well.

BP was leasing the rig Deepwater Horizon when it exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill that has so far spewed at least 7 million gallons of oil into the gulf. Oil has begun coating birds and washing into Louisiana’s delicate wetlands.

Witness statements show senior managers complained BP was “taking shortcuts” on the day of the explosion by replacing heavy drilling fluid with saltwater in the well that blew out.

Truitt Crawford, a worker for drilling rig owner Transocean Ltd, told Coastguard investigators about the complaints. The seawater, which would have provided less weight to contain surging pressure from the ocean depths, was being used to prepare for dropping a final blob of cement into the well.

“I overheard upper management talking, saying that BP was taking shortcuts by displacing the well with saltwater instead of mud without sealing the well with cement plugs, this is why it blew out,” Crawford said in his statement. BP declined to comment.

The statements show workers talked just minutes before the blowout about pressure problems in the well. At first, nobody seemed too worried – the chief mate for Transocean left two crew members to deal with the issue on their own.

What began as a routine pressure problem, however, suddenly turned to panic. The workers called bosses to report a situation, with assistant driller Stephen Curtis telling one senior operator the well was “coming in”.

Someone told well site leader Donald Vidrine that they were “getting mud back”. The toolpusher, Jason Anderson, tried to shut down the well.

It did not work. Both Curtis and Anderson died in the explosion.

At a hearing in New Orleans yesterday, Douglas Brown, the Deepwater Horizon’s chief mechanic, testified about what he described as a “skirmish” between someone he called the “company man” – a BP official – and three employees during a meeting on the day of the explosion.

Brown said he did not pay particular attention to what they were discussing because it did not involve his engine room duties. He later said he did not know the BP official’s name.

“The driller outlined what would be taking place, but the company man stood up and said ‘We’ll be having some changes to that’,” Brown testified. He said the three other workers initially disagreed but “the company man said ‘This is how it’s going to be’.”

Frustration with BP and the US government has only grown since then as efforts to stop the leak have failed.

Obama prepared to head to the Gulf on Friday to review efforts to halt the oil that scientists said seems to be growing significantly darker, from what they can see in an underwater video. It suggests that heavier, more-polluting oil is spewing out.

Bob Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said the procedure carried a high risk of failure because of the velocity at which the oil may be spewing.

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