UPDATE: BP resumes top kill and admits it has shut the process down twice, as well as losing one of its live stream cameras

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mariana O'Leary.

Publish date: May 27, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – BP on Thursday night restarted its latest effort to plug its oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico as part of an attempt to revive hopes that it will cap the 38-day-old geyser with the touted “top kill” technique which involves pumping heavy drilling liquids and mud into the well to push back against the pressure of the gushing oil.

BP officials, along with government officials, created the impression early in the day that the strategy was working. Company spokesmen did not directly contradict any information they had supplied earlier.

But the gaping omissions in accounts of the day’s activities shove a wider wedge between the company and the public trust it is rapidly losing between protracted efforts to stop the leak, apparently losing one of its live video feeds for the public and forbidding the press access to documenting damage done by the rising tide of oil. And it will do nothing to improve President Obama’s image or mood before he arrives here later today.

BP’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles disclosed in Thursday evening conference calls with reporters that BP had stopped pumping in the top kill effort Wednesday night when engineers saw that too much of the drilling fluid was escaping along with the oil.

On the whole, the top kill effort had been suspended twice for a total of 16 hours said Suttles in the latest setback in the effort to stop the leaking oil.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon informational website reported that the operation had been shut down once, but on late Thursday night carried no indication that two work stoppages had occurred.

“This whole operation is very, very dynamic,” Suttles told NEWS.GNOM.ES’s “John King, USA.”

“When we did the initial pumping (Wednesday), we clearly impacted the flow of the well. We then stopped to monitor the well. Based on that, we restarted again. We didn’t think we were making enough progress after we restarted, so we stopped again.”

Confirmations from federal authorities that the gulf leak has eclipsed the Exxon Valdez spill may have played a part in the apparent lapses in communication between BP and federal officials’ and their optimistic comments on the top kill procedure, which was by the new accounts largely non-operational Thursday.  

Suttles dismissed that BP was trying to keep the public in the dark.

“I probably should apologize to folks that we haven’t been giving more data on that,” Suttles said when asked why it took so long for BP to announce it had suspended the top kill. “It was nothing more than we are so focused on the operation itself.”

Are rising spill estimates throwing PR into tailspin?

Original Coast Guard estimates had put the spill at 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons a day. But the US Geological Survey’s Dr. Marcia McNutt said early on Thursday two teams from her agency using different methods for measuring the volume of oil in the gulf concluded in preliminary results that between 17 million and 39 million gallons have spilled so far at a rate of 500,0000 gallons a day.

Two other independent scientists, Dr. Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer form Florida State University, and Steven Wereley, a professor from Purdue University in Indiana, have corroborated a higher spill rate. MacDonald told Bellona Web on May 1st that the leak looked to be spilling 26,000 barrels, or 1.09 million gallons a day.

Wereley’s much higher estimate were 75,000 barrles a day from the primary leak and another 20,000 barrels from a secondary leak, for a grand total of 3.7 million gallons a day.

Camera loss during top kill

Coincidental to the admissions by Suttles, other BP spokesmen responded to complaints of a shut down of the streaming video from the bottom of the ocean where the public can view the top kill effort by saying the camera’s lens became covered with mud.  

There was no attempt to prevent the public from watching efforts to plug the leak from the damaged well, BP spokesman Jon Pack told Reuters.

“It’s just operational,” said Pack. “The camera that was closest to the riser got mud on its lens.”

Last week BP began broadcasting video images of its leaking underwater oil well, following pressure from US Congressional leaders concerned about the lack of progress in halting the leak.

Since then the images have focused on a plume of black crude oil flowing from a pipe, called a riser, which is connected to the well head. However, on Thursday all video had been of the equipment at the top of the well.

Riser video likely lost for good

Some of the mud being pumped into the blow out preventer travelled up the riser, expanding the plume of leaking oil, and this is what obstructed the camera, Pack said. He said he was unaware if it would be possible to solve the problem and restore images of the leaking riser.

Other BP spokesmen reached by Bellona Web late Thursday night would not comment on how they were observing the sea floor if the public could not.

Stocks jump because of obscured camera angle

BP is aware that stock traders are watching the live video link closely for signs that the operation has succeeded.  But BP has warned that images from the seabed will be an unreliable indicator of progress.

Nonetheless, BP shares jumped 6 percent in London based on rosy comments early Thursday from BP and from the US Coast Guard suggesting the flow of oil had already been restricted by the pumping of the drilling mud into the blow out preventer.

It is unclear what impact the latest comments from Suttles will have when the market reopens later this morning.

Fabled junk-shot back on the table

Suttles said that too much mud is leaving the breach instead of going down the well. “So what we need to do is adjust how we are doing the job so that we get more of the drilling mud to go down the well,” Suttles said.

He said one solution would be to introduce solids –  known as “bridging material,” or its variant “junk shot” –  into the mix.

BP officials said Thursdayt night – as they had said Wednesday when they began the top kill – that the procedure could take another 24 to 48 hours to complete, though whether the top kill will successfully stop the flow of oil is uncertain.

Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO, has famously given the top kill a 60 to 70 percent chance of succeeding.

Early morning misinformation from Allen

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the government’s response to the oil spill, had early on Thurday said the work “is moving along as everyone had hoped,” which now, in light of Suttles admission that the top kill had shut down on Wednesday night, was entirely untrue.

“They’re pumping mud into the well bore, and as long as mud is going down, hydrocarbons are not going up,” Allen told reporters Thursday afternoon, estimating that the work could take another night. “I think we just need to let that run its course, and we will see what happens,” he said.

Allen responded to questions from NEWS.GNOM.ES about discounting the two shut downs in his accounts of the top kill procedure by saying he hadn’t talked to BP officials yet.