The black hole at the bottom of the Gulf

No one seems to know the extent of the BP disaster

Some 33 days, nearly a billion dollars of expenditure, and umpteen official statements after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico – and the world is still none the wiser about how many millions of gallons of oil are leaking into the ocean every day, how much has already been discharged into the sea, and – more to the point – how this, maybe the world's worst oil disaster, can be stopped.

As scientists revise upward their guesstimates of the daily spill of crude into the sea (with some putting it as high as three million gallons a day), and BP halving its assessment of how much of the leak it is capturing, the attempts to deal with the disaster are, despite America's best efforts alongside one of the world's premier corporations, proving unequal to the task.

On Tuesday, BP engineers will attempt to plug the spewing well 5,000ft down on the ocean floor by spraying mud and cement into it. If that fails, there is a back-up plan which sounds about as hi-tech as throwing snowballs at the moon. It is called the "junk shot", and consists of trying to clog the well with golf balls, shredded tyres, and other refuse up to and including human hair. It has, more than a month after the calamity began, come to this.

And, with the frustration and impotence comes anger. President Obama raised the possibility of criminal prosecutions in his weekly radio address yesterday, saying: "First and foremost, what led to this disaster was a breakdown of responsibility on the part of BP and perhaps others, including Transocean and Halliburton."

Meanwhile, untold quantities of oil are creeping slowly ashore. Yesterday, sheets of rust-coloured heavy oil started to clog fragile marshlands on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta, damaging fishing grounds and wildlife. Brown and orange globs and sheets of foul-smelling oil the consistency of latex paint have also begun coating the reeds and grasses of Louisiana's wetlands, home to rare birds, mammals and a rich variety of marine life. A deep, stagnant ooze sat in the middle of a particularly devastated marsh off the Louisiana coast, where Emily Guidry Schatzel of the National Wildlife Federation was examining stained reeds. "This is just heartbreaking," she said. "I can't believe it." And on Grand Isle, Louisiana, officials closed the public beach, as thick gobs of oil resembling melted chocolate washed up.

BP, in charge of the cleanup, said that it will be at least Tuesday before engineers can shoot mud into the blown-out well. This has been tried on land, but never 5,000ft underwater. Crews will shoot the mud into a crippled piece of equipment atop the well. Then engineers will direct cement at the well to stop the oil permanently. BP executives say the only guaranteed solution to stop the leak is a pair of relief wells crews have already started drilling, but the work will not be complete until August.

As if BP weren't facing enough financial exposure, an exclusive report by a US news bureau yesterday warned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering banning the company from new government contracts, which could cost the oil giant billions in future revenues. Supplying the US army with oil is one of BP's biggest markets, and further exploration in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico is part of its long-term strategy.

David Strahan, oil specialist and author of The Last Oil Shock, said yesterday: "If the US does ban BP from new contracts, this is serious bad news for it, as it could prompt other countries to boycott the company. The US is crucial to BP and the irony of the latest catastrophe is that it has happened in a safe country, whereas BP is used to battling it out in more dangerous countries like Russia and Iraq."

BP is already fighting to salvage its reputation after the oil spill which has seen its shares plunge as the daily cost of the rescue operation mounts. Around £27bn has been wiped off the value of the energy giant since the Gulf disaster, and BP estimates the daily cost is around £6m while independent analysts have put the total cost of the clean-up as high as $12bn.

A BP spokesman told The IoS yesterday that it had not received any information from the EPA with regard to a ban. But, privately, BP sources say that such a move, if it were to go ahead, would take years to put into effect and would cost millions in legal fees for all parties. EPA sources say it is unlikely to make any decision until after a full investigation into the Gulf oil spill – which could take at least a year. However, while the EPA is clearly anxious about BP's record in the US, it also acknowledges that BP is a big employer there and any ban could have its own unintended consequences.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us