Has the effort to plug the Gulf oil spill via the “top kill” method failed? Some news stories coming out suggest that, at best, the effort hasn’t succeeded yet — or that at this stage it may have actually flopped.
What does it mean? A drip-drip-drip — or, rather, a gush-gush-gush — of bad news as the oil continues to spew, ruining the ocean, killing off fish and wildlife, and drifting unabated towards shore.
And, on the political scene, authentic questions will be raised about British Petrolium’s operation, pressure will increase for a criminal investigation and/or prosecution of BP, the Obama administration will be under political pressure and talk shows host and GOPers will have a prime topic to use to hammer against a Barack Obama who seems notably on the defensive and off his political game.
The news coming out on this Memorial Weekend about the oil spill is not encouraging — and raises the prospect that future news will be heartbreaking.
It’s become obvious from BP’s doublespeak and moving of the goalposts that the “top kill” hasn’t worked. I’m beginning to believe exactly that; that BP knows the top kill has failed, but that they are continuing to pump mud out on the ocean floor rather than admit it. Typically, you know pretty quickly if a top kill works. BP has been pumping the kill since Wednesday, trying a number of tactics, including junk shots. Their announcement last night that it would be at least through the weekend before if they know the results of the kill doesn’t ring true to me. Certainly they know a lot more than what they are saying.
Recall that a top kill will work only if enough back pressure can be generated in the leaking wellhead to allow the pumped mud to overcome the pressure from the well, turn the flow around, and then build enough hydrostatic head to overcome the formation pressure. The junk shot was designed to do just that, but apparently BP had decided to try just mud for the first effort. I believe that the high rate that BP pumped the mud washed out the cracks in the riser, actually reducing back pressure. The cracks in the riser are where you saw the mud flowing if you watched the live feed of the top kill the last couple of days. As a side note, I do find it interesting that the BP feed no longer includes the bent riser view of the last couple of days,and now looks like the end of the riser where the riser insertion tool had been used previously.
Is he jumping the gun? News stories aren’t brimming with hope. Reuters has this story that indicates BP bigwigs aren’t popping open champaign because they feel the situation is under control:
“We’ve said all along (the top kill) may or may not (be successful) and if it isn’t we’ll move on to the lower marine riser package cap,” Suttles told reporters.
BP engineers were assessing the results of a series of pumping operations involved in the “top kill” bid and would take a decision in due course which would be made public, he said.
Reuters earlier story:
The worst oil spill in U.S. history hit its 40th day on Saturday with Gulf residents clinging to the tenuous hope that BP’s complicated “top kill” operation will plug the gushing well.
The tricky maneuver started on Wednesday and involves pumping heavy fluids and other material into the well shaft to stifle the flow. BP (BP.L) had said repeatedly that it needed another 24 to 48 hours to know whether it would succeed, but backed off of giving time estimates on Saturday.
“The top kill operation continues and will carry on throughout the day today. We’re not putting any time constraints on the operation – it will progress as operations teams deem appropriate through the day today and longer if necessary,” company spokesman Tom Mueller said in an email.
Beleaguered Louisiana residents heard from President Barack Obama and BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward on separate visits to the Gulf coast on Friday as they tried to get a handle on a crisis damaging the credibility of both the government and BP.
Obama faced criticism that he responded too slowly to the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and assured Louisianians during his five-hour visit that they “will not be left behind” and that the “buck stops” with him.
The company has already started discussing a new backup plan, which could be deployed in a couple of days, and would involve cutting and removing the damaged pipe from which the crude is leaking. BP would then lower a containment dome onto the top of the huge stack of valves standing on the seabed known as a blow-out preventer and bring oil and gas through it up to a waiting vessel on the surface.
In the meantime, BP continued periodically pumping heavy fluid under pressure, known as mud, into the blowout preventer and then monitoring the results. Theoretically, the fluid should be heavy enough to counteract the pressure of the oil surging upwards. If the operation proves successful, cement would then be injected into the well to seal it.
The company was also injecting junk, such as golf balls and shredded tires, to plug leaks in the blowout preventer. Mr. Suttles said that was “helping to some degree.”
All these procedures would still be stop-gap measures until a relief well can be drilled, which will take two months or more.
Progress on the top kill was difficult to measure from BP’s “spillcam” of mud, gas and oil billowing from the sea floor. Americans have been hypnotized by the video feed as they watch for any sign of success.
On the political front, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page says it isn’t Obama’s Katrina – yet:
If Bush looked inactive, Obama has looked powerless. His news conference was intended to set the record straight or, at least, more favorable to his administration. Yet as political theater, news conferences have not been his best stage. This time he seemed about as awkward and self-contradictory as his last news conference, which misfired in ways that led less to a resolution of the health care debate, as intended, than to an odd “Beer Summit” about racial profiling.
This time Obama took “responsibility” for the leak and its deadly gook in the Gulf Coast wetlands while leaving the blame with BP…..His worst moment for showing his command of things came when he told a reporter he did not know whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, who resigned that morning from the directorship of the Minerals Management Service, had resigned or been fired, even though she was catching blame for failing to overrule the oil industry’s environmental and safety shortcuts.
Now it is up to Obama to show he is fully engaged with this homegrown Gulf crisis without being held captive by it like, say, President Jimmy Carter with the Iran hostage crisis.
Obama needs to overhaul the appropriate watchdog agencies and hold BP accountable, not only for fixing the problem and paying for all of its damages and cleanup costs but also for transparency. The government won’t be fooled again by low-ball estimates on the size of the spill.
Politics is 90 percent perception. “Optics” is the chic Washington term these days for the difference that visual perceptions make, a usage that probably was dreamed up by a political consultant. Bush had good optics when he mounted the rubble at the World Trade Center with a firefighter and a megaphone after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and bad optics when he was perceived flying over New Orleans, seemingly aloof and ineffective after Hurricane Katrina.
Now it is Obama’s turn in the crisis-management spotlight. The public may not hold him responsible for what happened before this disaster, but it surely will hold him responsible from what happens afterward.
The Christian Science Monitor also notes that Obama is now in the political danger zone:
Obama is facing a critical test of his philosophy: If the federal government can do so much, why can’t it stop the slow-motion Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf?
So far, the President is faring better than both Congress and BP in polls about the handling of a spill that has now surpassed the size of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in 1989.
But as oil continues to flow and slicks gather in marshes and on beaches, the gushing Deepwater Horizon geyser has become increasingly intertwined with both the messenger – the President – and his message.
“The original sin in my view is that as soon as the oil rig accident happened the president tried to maintain distance between the gusher and his presidency,” writes former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. “When your most creative thoughts in the middle of a disaster revolve around protecting your position, you are summoning trouble. When you try to dodge ownership of a problem, when you try to hide from responsibility, life will give you ownership and responsibility the hard way.”
The White House says the response to the spill disaster has been unprecedented with Obama in charge from the beginning, corralling resources and holding BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig, accountable. What’s more, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandates the current command structure that puts BP at the top of the relief effort. Meanwhile, Obama has largely held back from making dramatic policy moves in the wake of the spill.
That changed on Friday when the President ordered a tripling of federal manpower on the Gulf in order to focus more efforts on clean-up as BP desperately tries to kill the well using a “top-kill” maneuver that involves pumping drilling mud and even golf balls into a failed blow out preventer at the well’s head.
“The buck stops with me,” Obama told Gulf residents during a three-hour visit on Friday, where he met with local leaders and picked up tar balls on a beach.
And the economic impact? In Florida, although the beaches aren’t splattered with oil — the beaches are in places empty due to perceptions of oil-impacted beaches:
One of Obama’s biggest critics is Democratic strategist and popular talking head James Carville, who has blasted the Obama administration’s response and even drawn a (diplomatic) response from the White House. He is now highly critical of Obama for not spending enough time down there he visited. NOT a good sign for Obama:
Obama’s visit was marred by a PR bungle: some charged that BP brought in via bus a batch of temporary workers to help shape the photo op of Obama’s visit — leading to charges that there were “sham workers” on the scene to in effect misrepresent to the public what was really going on…or not going on.
Here’s a CNN report on that controversy:
CBS News notes that BP is struggling to stop the leak — but that it will take years to clean up the oil once it’s stopped:
Watch CBS News Videos Online
Some now wonder if there will changes in oil development:
The copyrighted cartoon by Cam Cardow, The Ottawa Citizen, is licensed to run on TMV. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.