Washington, May 15 (DPA): BP hoped to start siphoning crude oil out of a ruptured well by Saturday, pending its success in inserting a smaller pipe into a larger one to contain oil now gushing out of a damaged pipe into the Gulf of Mexico.
Doug Suttles, BP chief operating officer, told reporters Friday that he hoped "to begin operations overnight". The goal is to siphon crude oil out of the leaking well and up to the waiting Enterprise tanker ship on the surface.
BP has been grappling to contain damage for more than three weeks since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which had just finished drilling a well deep into the ocean floor.
After meeting with his advisors on the catastrophe threatening the marine environment and coastal economy in four states, US President Barack Obama harshly rebuked executives from BP and other oil firms for passing the blame on each other for the disaster.
He said the executives from BP, Halliburton and Transocean had created a "ridiculous spectacle" this week before the Senate, where they were "falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else".
"The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't," Obama said.
BP, which under US law must pay for the cleanup and damages, has spent about $450 million so far and deployed about 13,000 people to help with the cleanup on the water and preparations on land for the arrival of the oil slick.
So far, the slick has only touched a few places, according to Rear Admiral Mary Landry of the US Coast Guard, who is overseeing the response. She said reports of oil washing up west of the Mississippi River delta turned out to be algae. Four tar balls had been found on a Florida beach.
Underwater robots were working Friday at the disaster site to slide a 15-centimetre-wide pipe inside the damaged 23-centimetre-wide pipe that is spewing an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day from the well into Gulf waters. At the end of the smaller pipe is a gasket meant to seal the connection.
For the remote-controlled submarines, manoeuvring 1.6 kilometres under water has its challenges, and BP's John Crabtree warned of the uncertainty.
"This kind of operation was never attempted at this depth. It's just slow going," Crabtree told the DPA.
The plan is to "seal the leak" so the oil will start flowing up to the tanker ship, Crabtree said.
Meanwhile, a different containment approach using a so-called "top hat" device is being held in reserve if the pipe insertion fails. That option would involve placing a 1.5-metre-high upside-down funnel over the leaking wellhead and siphoning up a mixture of oil and water.
Last weekend, BP engineers tried a version of the "top hat" with a much larger device, but it failed when buoyant gas crystals formed in the cold Gulf waters and floated to the narrow opening, clogging the exit.
BP is two or three months away from the most reliable, permanent solution: sealing off the ruptured well by using a relief well now being drilled to send cement and mud into the leaking well. Suttles said BP would start drilling a second relief well Sunday.
The well 70 km off the coast of Louisiana ruptured after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank, killing 11 workers and threatening the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.