BP is turning to new options in its continuing and still-desperate bid to contain and eventually stop the constant gushing of oil from a leaking wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico.
On Monday, BP began readying a "top hat," a smaller version of the 12-metre cofferdam it tried lowering over the wellhead last week to contain and funnel the leaking oil to a tanker waiting on the surface of the sea. That contraption failed after slushy ice-like crystals, formed by a mixture of gas and water, clogged the opening inside the top of the box.
The smaller dome is able to inject methanol, an alcohol used as antifreeze, into its top to prevent the same type of crystals, or hydrates, from forming, according to BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles. He said the company hopes to have the smaller dome in place by the end of the week.
If that doesn't work, BP is considering pumping junk like rubber, golf balls and bits of fibre directly into the leak to clog it up in what's called "a junk shot."
It has also received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to spray chemical dispersant continuously into the water at the site of the leak in order to thin it, a BP official told The Associated Press. The spraying, using a remote-control submarine, began Monday and is expected to last about 24 hours.
And it's considering a "hot tap," or cutting the riser pipe extending from the leaking well and covering it with a larger pipe to bring the oil to the surface. This method is not considered terribly desirable, because it would increase the flow of oil.
"There's a lot of techniques available to us," Suttles told NBC's Today on Monday. "I can't tell you that one of them will work, but as long as we have options, we're going to keep trying.
"The goal here has to be to get the flow stopped."
The oil has been leaking since April 22, two days after the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform exploded and then collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico about 80 kilometres from the Louisiana coast, rupturing a wellhead 1,500 metres below the water's surface.
Oil started flowing at a rate of about 795,000 litres of crude a day. As of Sunday, about 13.25 million litres had poured into the sea.
On Monday, the U.S. Army National Guard was set to begin airlifting five-cubic-metre sandbags to spots on a six-kilometre stretch of coastline along Louisiana's Gulf coastline to guard against thick blobs of crude that began washing up on beaches.
There is a renewed sense of urgency as dime- to golfball-sized balls of tar washed up Saturday on Dauphin Island, five kilometres off the Alabama mainland at the mouth of Mobile Bay and much farther east than the thin, rainbow sheens that have arrived sporadically in the Louisiana marshes.
Meanwhile, BP is making "good progress" on a relief well that would divert oil from the main one to the surface, Suttles said, but added there are still "75 to 80 days to go" before it's functional.
Lawsuits pile up
BP — which had leased the drilling rig and is responsible for the cleanup — said Monday the spill has cost it $359 million so far for immediate response, containment efforts, commitments to the Gulf Coast states, and settlements and federal costs. The company did not speculate on the final bill, which most analysts expect to run into tens of billions of dollars.
In testimony released Monday in advance of a congressional hearing on Tuesday, BP said it has launched its own investigation into the cause of the explosion and leak, also looking into why a blowout preventer failed. The chairman and president of BP America, Lamar McKay, says the company has not reached any conclusions yet.
Meanwhile, the London-based oil giant is facing a growing number of lawsuits, including one filed Friday in New Orleans by one of its shareholders.
The lawsuit, by Pennsylvania resident Katherine Firpo, accuses Hayward and other executives of ignoring safety issues on rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon.
Firpo also accuses them of pursuing cost-cutting measures at the expense of safety, while lobbying government authorities to decrease safety regulation.
The suit is a "shareholder derivative" suit, meaning it was filed by a shareholder on the company's behalf. Among other things, the lawsuit seeks court-ordered changes in BP's corporate governance, and an order that the executives pay monetary damages.
When asked on Today if BP had misrepresented the risks of or been totally unprepared for such a disaster, COO Suttles said he didn't think it had.
"I haven't spent time going backwards," said Suttles. "We followed all the rules and regulations, we had the safety systems in place, we had the spill plans in place, but I think what we'll all do is once this is over is look back and see 'Was that enough? Does there need to be more? Do there need to be additional advances in the industry?' "
Firpo's lawsuit also names three other corporations it says are liable to BP as a result of the disaster: the rig's owner-operator Transocean Ltd.; Cameron International Corp., which manufactured the blowout preventer; and Halliburton Energy Services Inc., which had been working to cap the well with cement prior to the explosion. Spokesmen for those companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.