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By GUY CHAZAN and NEIL KING |
BP PLC engineers struggled over the weekend to overcome problems with a containment dome the company hopes might capture much of the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.
Challenges with the dome come as White House officials, U.S. lawmakers and others in the industry ask whether BP failed to foresee and prepare for a disaster of this scale, as doubts deepen over the company's ability to handle the spill.
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European Pressphoto Agency
Researcher Lisa Pfau tests for oil Sunday near Pass Christian, Miss.
.BP assured regulators last year that oil would come ashore only in a small area of Louisiana, even in the event of a spill much larger than the current one. But as of Sunday evening, authorities reported that black, gooey balls were washing up on beaches in Alabama, farther than the company's original calculation.
BP spent Sunday trying to determine how to proceed with the huge metal-and-concrete containment dome, after it got clogged with crystallized gas 5,000 feet below the surface. The contraption was designed to sit over the leaking pipe and funnel as much as 85% of the oil to the surface, where it could be captured.
The four-story, 98-ton dome took the company two weeks to build and deploy—evidence, critics say, that the company didn't envision or prepare for the sort of blowout that occurred last month.
"The only thing that's clear is that there was a catastrophic failure of risk management," said Nansen Saleri, a Houston-based expert in oil-reservoir management and a former top official at Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil company.
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Oil Spill Liability May Spike .BP defended its actions. "You have here an unprecedented event—never before have you seen a blowout at such depth and never before has a blowout preventer failed in this way," BP spokesman Andrew Gowers said. "The unthinkable has become thinkable, and the whole industry will be asking searching questions of itself."
The dome is now sitting on the seabed, about 600 feet away from the main leak. Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP's exploration and production division, denied the operation had failed and said the company was trying to figure out a way of providing heat at a depth of 5,000 feet to melt the crystals. BP had anticipated that the crystallized gas, called hydrates, could form in the pipe connecting the dome to the surface vessel, but not inside the dome itself.
BP also said it would try to deploy a smaller "top hat" dome that will form a tighter fit around the leak, hopefully preventing more water from entering the device and forming hydrates, Mr. Suttles said. The top hat will be lowered on Tuesday or Wednesday, he said.
BP and its partner on the project, Transocean Ltd., will face two Senate panels Tuesday on the April 20th explosion of the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers. The rig sank two days later, setting off an oil leak that has since released around 85,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf.
The issue of BP's preparedness is sure to be a prime topic at the hearing, according to Senate staffers.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that his "own preliminary observations" were that BP and its partners had made "some very major mistakes" leading up to and after the disaster.
Some in the oil industry questioned why it took the company so long to come up with the idea of a containment dome, and why it didn't have one ready to use.
"There should be technology that's pre-existing and ready to deploy at the drop of a hat," said one former Transocean executive. "It shouldn't have to be designed and fabricated now, from scratch."
BP is also struggling to secure sufficient amounts of booms, the floating strips used to keep oil offshore, and a large enough fleet of skimmer boats to keep the slick from spreading.
BP's general spill plan, which was updated last summer, shows that the company's claimed abilities were out of sync with the realities of the spill. Under the plan, BP said that the worst spill from a mobile drilling operation would come from a lease called the Mississippi Canyon 462, about 33 miles off the Louisiana coast. A blowout of that lease could discharge a mammoth 250,000 barrels a day, BP said, 50 times the estimated flow of the current leak. Yet BP claimed to have in place sufficient booms, stocks of dispersants and skimmers to deal with a spill far in excess of the volume it is now struggling to contain.
BP's plan, as submitted to the Mineral Management Service, placed exceedingly low probabilities on oil reaching land in the event of a major spill. Even in the case of the worst spill, BP said, there was only a 3% chance that oil would come ashore after a month in any part of the Gulf other than Plaquemines, La., which juts into the Gulf south of New Orleans.
Mr. Gowers defended BP's clean-up operation. "We moved very rapidly to implement the approved response to the accident," he said. "The evidence for that is the huge containment effort on the surface and onshore."
—Brian Baskin contributed to this article.