BP cleared to start burning oil

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The Independent US

BP has been cleared to start burning oil and gas piped up from its broken well as part of a pledge to more than triple how much crude it stops from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Federal authorities gave permission for BP to use a new method that involves pumping oil from the busted wellhead to a special ship on the surface, where it will be burned off rather than collected.

The British oil giant said it hopes to trap as much as 2.2 million gallons of oil daily by the end of June as it deploys additional containment equipment, including the flaring system.

The plan, unveiled after the federal government pressed BP to work faster on containing the gusher, came as President Barack Obama paid his fourth visit to the stricken Gulf and promised residents that life would return to normal after the worst oil spill in US history, which has disrupted fishing and tourism and spoiled ecologically rich estuaries.

The president visited Mississippi and Alabama yesterday as part of a two-day stop. He sought to assure residents - and the country - that the government will "leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before". He visits Florida later today ahead of a national address on the worst environmental disaster in US history, which has become a stern test of his presidency.

While the president was on the Gulf, congressional investigators released documents that showed BP made a series of money-saving shortcuts and blunders that dramatically increased the danger of a destructive spill from a well that an engineer ominously described as a "nightmare" just six days before the April blowout.

Investigators found that BP was badly behind schedule on the project and losing hundreds of thousands of pounds with each passing day, and responded by cutting corners in the well design, cementing and drilling efforts and the installation of key safety devices.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee released dozens of internal documents that outline several problems on the deep-sea rig in the days and weeks before the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and set in motion the catastrophe.

"Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense. If this is what happened, BP's carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants, and the workers on the rig," said Democratic Representatives Henry A Waxman and Bart Stupak.

Asked about the investigation, BP spokesman Mark Proegler said the company's main focus right now is on the response and stopping the flow of oil.

The breached well has dumped as much as 114 million gallons of oil into the Gulf under the worst-case scenario described by scientists - a rate of more than 2 million gallons a day. BP has collected 5.6 million gallons of oil through its latest containment cap on top of the well, or about 630,000 gallons per day.

To trap more oil faster, BP would continue to siphon off the flow from a containment cap sitting above the well to a drill ship sitting on the ocean surface. More oil from the blowout preventer - a stack of pipes sitting on the seafloor - also would be drawn through hoses and pipes to a drilling rig where it will be burned using a specialised flare.

Still, BP warned its containment efforts could be hampered if hoses or pipes clog and as engineers struggle to run the complicated collection system.

BP spokesman Bill Salvin said the company has contracted with actor Kevin Costner and Ocean Therapy Solutions to use 32 of their centrifuge machines designed to separate oil from water.

"We recognised they had potential and put them through testing, and that testing was done in shallow water and in very deep water and we were very pleased by the results," Mr Salvin said.

Meanwhile, the US government is ready to take over the handling of oil spill damage claims from BP if the British company doesn't set up an "independent entity" to do it, a presidential spokesman said.

Speaking from Washington, Robert Gibbs said the oil giant's claims processing work has been unsatisfactory. He noted that Barack Obama "has the legal authority" to make the claims process independent. Mr Gibbs said "the best way to prevail upon BP is to take the claims process away from BP".

He added: "The president will either legally compel them or come to an agreement with BP to get out of the claims process, give that to an independent entity."