BP monitors ‘top kill’ attempt to plug spewing oil

VENICE, La. – BP faces a defining day in its five-week Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster on Thursday when its latest attempt to seal a gushing well deep underwater will be deemed either a success or a failure.

As BP monitored the well, President Barack Obama prepared to announce on Thursday a six-month extension of the moratorium on permits for new deepwater oil drilling while a commission studies the reasons for the gulf spill, a White House aide said.

The spill created by the deadly blast aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, which was leased by BP, is shaping up to be the worst in U.S. history. Obama has come under increasing pressure from lawmakers and residents of the oil-stained coast to take over the disaster response if BP’s latest tactic to plug the spewing oil – known as a top kill – fails.

"With the increased risks, the increased costs, it gives you a sense of where we’re going," Obama said on a trip to California on Wednesday. "We’re not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use."

Obama, who has described the Gulf crisis as "heartbreaking," is to outline his response to the oil spill at a 12:45 p.m. EDT/1645 GMT White House news conference.

Alaska Senator Mark Begich said had been told by the Interior Department that the administration’s plan to limit drilling will include suspending applications for exploratory drilling in the Arctic is suspended until 2011.

As one of the country’s worst environmental catastrophes unfolds on his watch, Obama is under increasing pressure from lawmakers and residents of the oil-stained coast to take over the disaster response if the top kill fails.

At risk is a unique ecosystem already battered by Hurricane Katrina, a lucrative seafood industry now largely shut down and the credibility of a first-term president’s crisis management.

The New York Times reported the company had tried to save money by taking a chance on the type of single-casing cement casing used on the well.

The newspaper, which cited a BP document it received from a congressional investigator, said gases were leaking through the casing hours before the explosion.

PRAYING FOR SUCCESS

BP’s stock was up 2.87 per cent in Thursday’s trading.

The company kept a close watch on the top kill effort overnight and said, "There are no significant events to report at this time."

If the ploy works, it will be considered a miracle because the top kill has never been done at the depths of the gushing well.

"I’m praying to God that it will work," said Troy Wetzel, 45, who owns a charter boat for sport fishermen in Venice, a fishing mecca in southern Louisiana reeling from the impact of the spill.

The top kill technique uses undersea robots to help inject heavy fluids known as drilling mud and ultimately cement down about a mile (1.6 km) to the sea-bed well to stifle the oil flow.

In a sign that BP and the government were aligning after weeks of tension between the two camps, BP chief executive Tony Hayward and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu monitored operations together in Houston.

Hayward said late Wednesday that the operation was proceeding as planned in the first hours and that he needed 24 hours to know if it would work.

The company has lost about a quarter of its market value since the April 20 explosion and investors could buy BP shares if the well is sealed in this attempt after a few failures.

BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said on Wednesday it appears drilling mud, not oil, was gushing from a ruptured undersea well six hours into an effort to halt a growing oil spill.

If the top kill fails, BP has other methods in its arsenal and the next approach would likely to be a containment device over the broken blowout preventer, a structure at the top of the well on the ocean floor, Suttles said.

BP is also drilling relief wells which should stop the flow from the main well but that is still weeks away.

The London-based energy giant has estimated that about 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) have been leaking every day, although some scientists have given much higher numbers.

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