MIAMI – Oil giant BP succeeded Sunday in connecting a mile-long pipe to help capture what it hoped will be a majority of the oil flowing from a damaged well into the Gulf of Mexico _ "an important step" toward capping the massive spill, the company said, but not a complete solution.
The company initially connected the suction pipe for about four hours just after midnight Sunday, sending some oil, gas and water to an oil tanker 5,000 feet above the seabed, but then the pipe was dislodged. It was reconnected late Sunday morning.
"We’re looking to optimize this over the next couple days to try to produce as much oil and gas as we can," said Kent Wells, BP’s senior vice president for exploration and production, at a press conference. He added that while the amount of oil being captured was gradually increasing, the company had not measured it.
The effort doesn't plug the massive oil leak that began on April 20 when an offshore rig caught fire and sank, but it's the first success in almost a month to begin capping the erupting flow. A similar effort had failed early Saturday.
Despite BP's success Sunday, scientists say that the large swatch of oil covering the gulf already has had a monumental ecological impact.
Satellite images taken Saturday by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory show that the oil may have already entered the Gulf Loop current, which could pull it through the Florida Keys and into South Florida, according to an analysis by Mitch Roffer, an oceanographer who runs Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service and has been tracking the spill.
"I think the threat to South Florida is real and we should get ready," said Igor Kamenkovich, associate professor at the Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, who had not seen the images. "It's hard to predict but if it gets in the loop current it can happen as quickly as 7 to 10 days...If it does happen, it is bad news for us."
At the oil-leak site, a tube five-feet long and four inches in diameter was pushed into a leaking riser that’s 21 inches in diameter _ the source of most of the spill. The inserted tube has three large flexible rubber diaphragms to keep it in the riser and block oil and water from mixing; however, BP officials said the riser is still leaking some oil.
The pipe is full of nitrogen, which is slowly being pulled back to let oil and gas flow in while keeping water from entering. Methanol, a kind of antifreeze, is also being pumped into the riser to stop crystals from forming that could block gas and oil from flowing to the ship. Crystals got in the way of a previous attempt to lower a 78-ton containment cap over the leak site.
The surface tanker will separate the oil, gas and water mixture for storage and eventual offloading. Overnight some of the collected gas was burned through a flare system on the tanker. BP officials weren't able to specify Sunday how much the tanker can hold.
"It's a positive move, but let's keep it in context. We're not shutting off the flow of oil from this well, and we will do that when we do the top kill procedure," Wells said.
The "top-kill" involves jamming up to 50,000 barrels of a heavy-density mud-like liquid into channels leading to the oil well, effectively overpowering the leak before adding cement to seal it off. BP officials said it would attempt a "top kill" in a week to 10 days.
"The more mud we get into the well, the lower the rate and pressure will be" of the spill, Wells said. The insertion of the tube into the oil-disgorging pipe is the only successful attempt the company has had in curbing the ecological disaster that threatens the Gulf and Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida ecosystems. A containment vessel _ four feet in diameter and five feet long _ or “top hat” that engineers would try to place over the main leaking pipe is also sitting on the sea floor as another option. Oil captured in it would also be pumped to a barge. Officials also have not ruled out a ‘‘junk shot," which entails shooting golf balls, shredded tires, knotted pieces of rope and other debris into the oil well to clog the leak.
BP also has started drilling two relief wells, which experts say is the most fail-proof long-term solution to stopping the spill. That process will not be competed until August.
On Sunday, scientists said the discovery of large submerged oil plumes – one up to 10 miles long – raised fears of more damage to the Gulf. They also raised questions about when large amounts of crude might hit shore. Occasional tar balls have been seen on beaches in a few states, but there have not been any reports of large amounts of oil washing ashore. In Mississippi, Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran said her city will submit a $3 million action plan to protect the marshes.Ocean Springs joins Biloxi, which on Friday asked the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources for $2.99 million to pay for police, fire fighters, engineering and other personnel to take care of everything from traffic control to hazard response. The funding is for 8 months and could change depending on what type of cleanup ultimately is needed.
Moran said that Ocean Springs hasn't had any oil on its shores yet, but she's not going to leave the details to BP. The city will use the $3 million to hire its own environmental engineers and protect the many marshes with a more substantial barrier than the “flimsy” boom that Moran said now in place.
BP officials told the city it will bring in shock absorber booms if and when the oil approaches the shore. “It's not enough to placate me,” Moran said. She learned after Hurricane Katrina that help promised to arrive in 72 hours came more than 10 days later, and she doesn't want the city to be in that position again.
“I'm going to be prepared for what we need to do to protect Ocean Springs,” she said.
About 15 marshes back up into residential areas and she said while residents aren't in a panic. “They're alarmed. They demand we be as prepared as we can be.”
A BP trainer will teach a 4-hour hazard course for up100 city employees and more sessions for the public are planned for Thursday and Friday.
At least 210,000 gallons of oil have been gushing into the Gulf each day since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and some scientists think the leak may be 10 times as bad.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY