Two days after BP began a risky effort to stop a gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, company officials said the operation was going as planned but offered few details, leaving it unclear whether America's worst oil spill would end any time soon.
BP PLC warned that it could be tomorrow or later before it becomes clear whether its bid to plug the well through an effort known as a "top kill" is working.
Experts said they could see incremental progress at best from BP's "spillcam" of mud, gas and oil billowing from the seafloor. The hypnotic video has become an Internet sensation.
Scientists say the images may offer clues to whether BP is getting the upper hand in its struggle to contain the oil, said Tony Wood, director of the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. If the stuff coming out of the pipe is jet black, it is mostly oil and BP is losing. If it is whitish, it is mostly gas and BP is also losing.
If it is muddy brown, as it was much of Friday, that may be a sign that BP is starting to win, he said. That "may in fact mean that there's mud coming up and mud coming down as well," which is better than oil coming out, Wood said.
Philip W. Johnson, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama, said the camera appeared to show mostly drilling mud leaking from the well Friday morning, and two of the leaks appeared a little smaller than in the past, suggesting the top kill "may have had a slight but not dramatic effect."
But Bob Bea, a professor of engineering at University of California at Berkeley who has studied offshore drilling for 55 years, said late Friday that what he saw didn't look promising.
He likened the effort to pushing food into a reluctant baby's mouth — it only works if the force of the stuff going down is more than the force of what's coming up.
"It's obvious that the baby's spitting the baby food back" because the pressure pushing up from the well is stronger, Bea said.
The top kill operation began on Wednesday, with BP pumping heavy drilling mud into the blown-out well in an effort to choke off the source of the spill which has released anywhere from 18 million gallons to 40 million gallons of oil by the government's estimate.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the denser-than-water mud had pushed down the oil and gas that's forcing its way up from underground, but the mud had not overwhelmed the gusher.
BP has brought in about 2.5 million gallons of drilling mud for the top kill. BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said yesterday the procedure was going basically as planned, though the pumping has stopped several times.
"The fact that it's stopped and started is not unusual," Suttles said. "We're going to stay at this as long as we need to."
He said the company has also shot in assorted junk, including metal pieces and rubber balls, which seemed to be helping to counter pressure from the well. The first infusion of junk was Thursday evening.
A top kill has never been attempted 5,000 feet underwater, and public fascination is high.
BP, under pressure from Congress, made available a live video feed of what is going on underwater, and about 3,000 websites were showing a version of it that the PBS "Newshour" offered for free. On Thursday alone, show spokeswoman Anne Bell said, more than a million people watched it. Many found it hypnotic.
"It made me wonder how I use energy and if this situation could teach us how much energy we use ourselves," said Jeb Banner, 38, a web design and marketing company owner in Indianapolis who has been looking at the feed every hour or so since before the top kill started. "It felt like a historic moment."
BP says the best way to stop the oil for good is a relief well, but it won't be complete until August. The company had been drilling a second relief well as a backup — Obama said Thursday his administration pushed for it in case the first one did not stop the oil — but work on that has stopped while the rig that had been drilling it works on another option for stopping the oil.
"We actually started that well before this job started, so you shouldn't read that as any indication of anything about the top kill job," BP's Suttles said yesterday.
Billy Ward, a developer who was building a gated fishing community that is now on hold because of the spill, said that Obama's visit was for show and that there was really nothing the president could do.
"It's the unknown that's killing us," said Ward, who comes to Grand Isle with his family every weekend to stay in their beach house. "We don't know if it's going to be six months or six years before we get back to normal, if ever. All we can do is pray."Reuse content