Energy giant BP today said it was capturing about one fifth of the oil leaking from its ruptured Gulf of Mexico well, but the London-based company faced fresh questions about its industry safety record. BP shares initially climbed on news that a "quick fix" – a 1.6km long siphon tube deployed by undersea robots down to the leaking well-- had made some progress in partly reducing the flow of oil and gas. More efforts to stem the spill were under way, and there is another smaller leak besides the one now being targeted. BP executives still faced tough questions from the US government and public over the huge spill threatening economic and environmental calamity to the US Gulf Coast.
They can expect more intense grilling by lawmakers and investigators after tough questioning last week about safety practices. A study released on Monday by the Centre for Public Integrity showed two BP-owned US refineries accounted for 97 percent of all flagrant safety violations found in the refining industry by government inspectors over the past three years. "The only thing you can conclude is that BP has a serious, systemic safety problem in their company," said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labour for occupational safety and health, quoted in a statement from the non-profit group. BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said engineers were working intensely to try to control the gushing well, which some scientists say also has created huge underwater "plumes of oil," besides a massive, shifting surface slick. "We're throwing absolutely everything at this," Suttles told CNN.
The spill threatens to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident off Alaska as the worst US ecological disaster. While the US Gulf Coast has so far been spared a massive landfall of heavy oil, small amounts of oil debris, in the form of surface sheen and tar balls, have come ashore in outlying parts of the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. "People are freaking out. They see the news and think oil is everywhere, but it is not," said Michael Dorie, co-owner of Wild Native and Five Rivers Delta Safaris, which takes people out in Alabama's Mobile Tensaw Delta on eco-tours. Detailing the undersea efforts, Mr Suttles said a suction tube had been inserted into a well riser pipe that fell to the ocean floor after last month's explosion and sinking of a rig drilling the BP-owned well.
The riser pipe has been gushing oil from the blown-out well. The inserted suction tube was siphoning off 1,000 barrels per day, about one fifth of the 5,000 barrels (795,000 litres) BP estimated to be leaking per day. Other estimates are much higher. "This is just containing the flow. Later this week, hopefully before the end of the week, we'll make our next attempt to actually fully stop the flow," Mr Suttles told NBC. BP said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it would take time to try to increase the amount of oil and gas being siphoned off to a surface ship. "This remains a new technology and both its continued operation and its effectiveness in capturing the oil and gas remains uncertain. Other containment options continue to be progressed," it added.
The next move would involve a so-called "top kill" option in which engineers using the undersea robots would try to shoot heavy "mud," a mixture of synthetic materials, into the well to form a barrier to prevent oil and gas from escaping. This could be combined with a so-called "junk shot" that would inject a variety of materials, such as golf balls and pieces of rubber tire, into the ruptured well's failed "blowout preventer" safety device to seal off oil flow. The Obama administration greeted the news cautiously, saying the tube insertion was "not a solution to the problem." Investors have already knocked around $30 billion off BP's value over the spill, which followed the April 20th explosion in which eleven workers were killed.