US prepares for the worst after best hope of oil solution falls apart

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is the worst environmental catastrophe that the US has ever faced, the White House conceded yesterday, as it warned Americans to be prepared for oil and gas to keep leaking into the ocean for almost three more months.

Forty days after the fatal oil rig explosion that ripped a hole in the sea bed, BP gave up on its latest desperate bid to stop the flow, a failure that the company said "scares everybody".

By yesterday, its engineers had returned to the drawing board to design a new way of funnelling some escaping oil to the surface for collection. It is a process that, if successful, will capture a majority of the oil, leaving the rest to swell a slick that is already licking the shore in Louisiana, affecting sensitive wildlife areas and threatening the livelihoods of fishing communities along the coast.

Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana, declared that the state was in "a war to protect our way of life".

Many beaches that would normally be teeming with visitors for the Memorial Day long weekend were deserted yesterday, and residents reacted with anger and despair at news that the so-called "top kill" procedure had failed. BP had spent three days pumping mud and junk into the hole, in what Robert Dudley, BP's managing director, called an attempt to "wrestle this beast to the ground".

The beast proved stronger than their efforts, however; pressure forced most of the material back out, and government officials became alarmed that further increasing the pressure of the injected material could have dangerous consequences.

And so the underwater camera showing the leak, which has provided a transfixing visual accompaniment to the blizzard of press conferences and television appearances of BP bosses and White House officials, continues to show thick black oil spewing out, 5,000ft below the surface of the ocean. A new relief well that will permanently replace the destroyed rig will not be ready until "ry the end of August", Mr Dudley said. The government has ordered BP to drill two relief wells, to be on the safe side.

Between 20 and 40 million gallons of oil have leaked into the ocean and though the exact rate of release is unknown, it has already become clear that this is the biggest spill in US history, eclipsing the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989. Yesterday, President Barack Obama's energy adviser, Carol Browner, declared it "probably the biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced in this country".

On NBC television's Meet the Press, Ms Browner said BP's new plan of capping the leak would not provide a permanent solution and would not capture all the escaping oil. "There could be oil coming up till August when the relief wells are done," she said. "We are prepared for the worst. We have been prepared from the beginning."

Work to deal with the spill has included more than 80 "burns", where oil on the surface of the sea is set alight. Local fisherman have also been enlisted to scoop billions of barrels of oil and water so far. But these efforts, together with miles of booms and the widespread use of chemical dispersants, have failed to prevent increasing amounts of oil from coming ashore and clogging Louisiana's environmentally sensitive marshlands, with the federal government under pressure to do much more to limit the damage.

Mr Jindal is demanding BP be ordered to construct a 40-mile sand bank to prevent oil reaching the wetlands. "The federal government shouldn't be making excuses for BP," the governor told ABC's This Week. "This is their spill, their oil. They're the responsible party. Make them responsible."

BP executives had given the top kill procedure a 60 to 70 per cent chance of success. It came after earlier attempts to mitigate the disaster also failed. A giant cofferdam lifted over the site of the leak, designed to capture and funnel the oil, proved ineffective after ice crystals developed and buoyed the structure.

The latest idea is to place a smaller cap, called a "lower marine riser package", over the hole in a procedure that will involve cutting off the broken drilling pipe on the seabed.

The US government said last night that BP planned to start this procedure in the next couple days, but warned that the operation would increase the flow of oil by 10 per cent to 20 per cent in the short term before the cap was in place.

There is "no guarantee" that this tricky procedure will be a success either, Mr Dudley said.

BP's engineers, operating at the site of the leak using remote controlled robots because it is too deep to reach by any other means, are being asked to conduct "open-heart surgery on television", he said.

THE DAMAGE DONE...

To BP

*Efforts to staunch the leak and clean up its devastating aftermath have cost BP $940m (£650m) already, and the company has promise to reimburse the government for its costs, too. Each day without success increases the damage. The public and politicians are angry about the failures that caused the explosion – leaked memos suggest the company was worried about the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon last June – and BP's conduct since. Over the weekend the company was accused of bussing in 400 workers as a publicity stunt when President Obama visited the region.

To the president

*Political debate in the US is now dominated by the question of whether the spill is "Obama's Katrina", comparing the President's reaction to the disaster to what was perceived as a dismal response to Hurricane Katrina by George W Bush. The White House is torn between the need to show the public it is "in charge" of the relief effort and the reality that BP's engineers are technically better equipped to deal with the spill. One commentator this weekend called it "Obama's Iranian hostage crisis", likening it to the embassy siege in 1979 that cast Jimmy Carter in the role of a mere spectator.

To the coastal community

*A quarter of Louisiana's 400-mile coastline has already been affected by the spill, threatening environmental devastation and the livelihoods of 60,000 licensed fishermen in this region. Tar balls have also washed ashore in Florida and there are fears that currents and hurricanes could pull the spill out into the Atlantic Ocean, with unpredictable consequences. Already, wildlife is suffering. Marshlands are being coated with sticky oil, fish have washed up dead, and bird and marine nurseries are also being hit. Hotels in the region have report cancellations as tourism is also affected.

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