BP finally shears riser pipe after broken saw fails as Obama announces surprise visit to Gulf of Mexico

Publish date: June 3, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – In a rare success, BP has successfully cut off the riser pipe from the its leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico, a crucial step toward trying to cap the pipe with a siphon, but the roughness of the slice may prove an impediment in further efforts to fit the spewing well with the siphon to direct some leaking oil to tankers on the surface.

The White House also announced today that President Obama will be returning to the Gulf on Friday, his second visit in a week. The move is the latest in string of White House movement to show Americans that the Administration is in charge of the cleanup and containment efforts.

Obama’s nearly surprise trip comes the same day the Administration sent BP “and other responsible parties” a $69.09 million bill for cleanup effort thus far.

The Coast Guard meanwhile announced that it was dispatching a team to the Florida Keys to investigate reports of oil and tar ball sightings.Oil has already made landfall on parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, and is fast approaching the Florida Panhandle.
[picture1 left]The Coast Guard said it had received multiple reports of an “oily substance and tar balls” 4 nautical miles south of Long Key, Fla., and that it would run a battery of tests to determine if the pollution was related to the BP spill.

Oil still will escape

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the top US official overseeing the containment of the leak, called the move shearing off the pipe “a significant step forward” in the efforts to contain the ruptured well.  But Allen acknowledged that the rougher fit increases the risk that oil may escape.

Yesterday the diamond saw that was making a precision cut into the well pipes got stuck and had to be removed. The cut was eventually made by a pair of 20-foot-long robotically controlled shears.

“We don’t have as clean of cut, but we do have a cut now,” Allen told reporters.

The London-based oil giant has a half-dozen different containment “domes” available to use, and Allen said the irregular cut caused by the shears will likely prevent the company from using its first choice when it attempts to place the cap later today. He said the current one BP is considering is “one step back from the best cap we could get.”

The so-called “top cap” will include a rubber seal and will be able to accommodate the roughly 10-degree tilt in the portion of the pipe it is attaching to, he said.

Hydrate freezing still a problem

It should also allow BP to pump methanol into it to help prevent the formations of hydrates – caused by the interaction of natural gas and seawater at cold temperatures and high pressures – that derailed previous containment efforts with a similar metal dome. Allen told reporters that the cap itself will become filled with hydrates, ice-like crystals of gas and water that form at low temperatures and high pressures. Hydrate build-up thwarted an earlier attempt to cap the leak with a containment dome.

“Given the type of cut, this is the best containment cap we can be using,” he said.

Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, the oil giant that owns the well, said at a brief news conference Thursday afternoon that “we have a relatively clean wellhead,” but he cautioned that “none of this has ever been done before, so there’s always risk.”

“The next 12 to 24 hours will give us an indication of how successful the attempt will be,” he said

A technician involved in the effort said that because the shear cut left the riser with a slight bend, a different cap would be used than the one originally planned. This cap would fit over the flange that attaches the riser to the blowout preventer stack, the large assembly of equipment atop the well that was supposed to seal the well in an emergency but failed to do so.

The technician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the work, told the New York Times that robotic submersibles had to “dress up” the cut end of the pipe before the cap could be lowered. “Everything just takes time,” he said.


Oil now spewing in volcanic proportions

For now, though, with the riser sheared off, oil is pouring unobstructed into the ocean. The federal group charged with measuring the spill has said that with the cut completed, the flow from the leak could now be as much as 20 percent greater than before. Until Thursday, the riser had been constricted somewhat by bends, much like kinks in a garden hose. The live feed of the leak is available here.

Obama sends bill to provide ‘transparency’

A White House statement released today said that BP and other companies are getting the bill “To provide full transparency of the ongoing efforts and to ensure that the American public is not held accountable for the costs of response and recovery activities, the Federal Government will bill BP and the other responsible parties periodically.”

Tomorrow’s trip will be the president’s third to the Gulf Coast since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and rupturing the well that has since belched untold amounts of crude.

Facing increased scrutiny as the spill continues into its sixth week, the Obama administration has launched a multipronged effort to convince Americans that the president, and not BP, is the one calling the shots.

In addition to his visits to the Gulf, Obama has repeatedly dispatched a number of top officials to the region, including Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. EPA chief Lisa Jackson and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Allen, who is Obama’s point man for the spill, has also increased his public presence and this week began giving daily media briefings on the response effort.

In an interview with NPR that aired today, Carol Browner, head of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, continued to make the case that even though BP is operating the underwater robots, it is Obama who is ultimately behind the controls.

“It is important, I think, for people to understand that BP cannot do anything without the administration’s agreement, and so if an idea is put forward that our brain trust, our scientists, are not comfortable with, they are told that, and they do not proceed,” she said.

Meteorologists say coming rougher seas will spread the spill

Independent meteorologists have said that the relatively calm seas that have aided the cleanup and containment efforts in the Gulf may soon come to an end.

“As winds increase from thunderstorms, squalls or tropical storms in the coming weeks, interruptions of containment operations will become more frequent,” Alex Sosnowski, a senior meteorologist at the commercial weather service told E&E News.

He said that such weather could make it more difficult to operate skimming vessels, deploy booms and — if the current cap effort is successful – collect the siphoned oil at the surface.

A new computer model released today by the Boulder, Colorado-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research depicted an even more dire situation, with the massive spill eventually extending around Florida and up the Atlantic Coast.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?'” Synte Peacock, a scientist who worked on the study,told E&E.

“Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood,” he said.