All-out effort to tame Gulf blowout ‘partly successful,’ says BP boss

WASHINGTON – Officials from energy giant BP expressed guarded optimism Friday about high-stakes efforts to stop a historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, even as they continued to tamp down expectations the ongoing “˜top kill’ operation would ultimately work.

“It appears to have been partially successful,” BP CEO Tony Hayward said of his company’s attempt to shut down a ruptured oil well using an eclectic combination of heavy drilling mud, golf balls and scraps of rubber tire. “Nothing has gone wrong so far.”

Later Friday, Hayward offered a more graphic analogy of BP’s progress in killing the deepwater well. “We have wrestled it to the ground, but we haven’t put a bullet in its head yet,” he told Reuters.

Despite the cautious assessment from Hayward, reports that the highly technical operation had at times actually stopped the upward flow of oil represented the best news yet about a spill that now ranks as the worst in American history.

The “˜top kill’ procedure involves pumping heavy clay and chemicals into a stack of pipes almost 1.6 kilometres below the surface of the Gulf. BP has supplemented that operation by attempting a “˜junk shot’ – firing rubber golf balls, metal and other material into the well to further plug up the well.

“They have been able to stop the hydrocarbons from coming up the well bore,” said U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander for the oil spill. “I think the real challenge … is going to be to sustain the mud on top of the hydrocarbons and reduce the pressure to the point where they could actually put a cement plug in.”

BP’s Hayward said he continued to put the chances of success at 60 to 70 per cent and said it would be Sunday before officials could determine whether to inject concrete into the pipes, the last step in the process of killing the well.

President Barack Obama, who toured the Gulf Coast of Louisiana on Friday, called the spill “an assault on our shores (and) on our people.”

Amid ongoing criticism of his administration’s response to the oil spill, Obama sought to assure Gulf Coast residents of his commitment to improve cleanup efforts and ensure residents who suffer financial losses receive fair compensation.

“I’m the president, and the buck stops with me,” he said after touring a beach at Port Fourchon, La., south of New Orleans.

“I am here to tell you that you’re not alone. You will not be abandoned … We’re going to keep at this every day until the leak is stopped, until this coastline is clean and your communities are made whole again.”

During his visit, Obama spent about 15 minutes walking along a threatened beach, picking up some nickel and quarter-sized “˜tar balls’ believed to be from the BP spill.

More than 20,000 people are engaged in cleanup efforts in the Gulf and along the beaches and ecologically fragile marshes in Louisiana. Obama said he had authorized Allen to “triple the manpower in places where oil has hit the shore or is within 24 hours of impact.”

U.S. government scientists estimate that between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil a day have been spewing into the Gulf since the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank on April 20.

BP’s Hayward, who had earlier claimed the spill was “relatively tiny” and would have a “very modest” ecological impact, revised his view Friday.

“This is very clearly an environmental catastrophe,” he told CNN.

BP has come under fire for failing to provide timely updates of its efforts to plug the well, including a delay in reporting that it had stopped pumping “˜mud’ into the well for an 18-hour period earlier this week.

Company officials stressed the U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was personally overseeing the operation in BP’s incident room in Houston.

Hayward said the operation is proceeding in phases, with engineers alternating between injecting the heavy drilling fluid and pumping in “lost-control material” – the golf balls and other materials. The company said the operation is proceeding slowly because of concern over the possibility a miscue could end up damaging the well further.

The company is assessing progress by monitoring pressure gauges on the well’s blowout preventer, the five-storey piece of equipment that failed to close off the well after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded.

“It’s going pretty well according to plan,” Hayward said in another televised interview.

“As everyone appreciates, this has never been done in 5,000 feet of sea water … Some of the risks have been reduced. The operational risk has been reduced. But we don’t know whether we will be able to overcome the well.”

The oil spill has already polluted more than 160 kilometres of Louisiana’s coastline.

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