Day 43 of Gulf Oil Spill: Countdown to Pipe Cutting, New Dome

On the first day of hurricane season BP prepares to cut the pipe.

ByMATT GUTMAN and KATE McCARTHY via via logo
May 31, 2010, 7:56 AM

June 1, 2010— -- As early as today a scalpel-sharp saw studded with industrial diamonds will be lowered to a 22-inch riser in an attempt to slice off the main oil pipe so engineers can lower a dome over the spewing oil in the Gulf of Mexico. It's plan seven in BP's growing list of strategies to stop the leak, already the worst ever in the U.S.

A squad of underwater robots are sawing, hacking and grappling in a pre-op for the complex underwater surgery.

Once the pipe has been cut the oil will spew into the Gulf of Mexico unobstructed, enough to fill an average swimming pool every hour.

Then engineers will then lower a dome—the third to be tried at the site of the collapsed rig—over the geyser in an effort to contain and siphon the oil to the surface.

Despite the failure of the previous domes, Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said this cap is smaller and therefore should have a better chance of success.

"It should be more snuggly fitted to the top, it won't be leaning on the ocean floor and the gooey sand of the ocean floor," Browner said. "Everyone I think is hoping for the best but we continue to plan for the worst."

Some petroleum experts are also hopeful about this strategy.

"My guess is this will be more successful by a large margin than the original insertion pipe…This way they should capture almost all of it," Eric Smith, the associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said.

But others have lost all faith in BP's ability to perform this surgery and note that is has never been tried at such depths before.

"This is an uncontrolled science experiment which is unprecedented one mile below the sea," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said.

The fear is that the cap will not fit and the oil will keep flowing, triggering an environmental domino effect.

"The ecological impact [from] the damage to the little critters that live down in the grassy marshland, they [are] the base of the food chains so that's en ecological impact. The whole face of the coast line could be impacted," Ed Overton, professor emeritus at Louisiana State University School of Coast and Environment, said.

BP Denies Oil Plumes Exist

Over the weekend scientists discovered the largest oil plumes yet --as long as 22 miles and located around 3,500 feet below the surface of the Gulf.

But on Sunday BP's CEO Tony Hayward denied the existence of these plumes.

"The oil is on the surface. It's very difficult for oil to stay in a column," he said. "It wants to go to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity."

Browner said the government has an independent team examining the plume and measuring the flow rate of the leak.

"I think it is important for the public to understand that BP has a financial interest in downplaying the size of the [spill] and we are not going to let that happen. We are going to bring our independent panel into these questions," Browner said. "We will get to the bottom of this, the American people need to know what the number is and this number will become an important piece in the litigation going forward because BP will be required to pay fines, a per-barrel per-day fine for what they are leaking."

As BP attempts the latest fix the Obama administration has ordered the company to drill two relief wells but those are not expected to be ready for months.

BP will have to drill two miles beneath the surface of the earth and hit a target approximately the size of a dinner plate.

"They are looking at some technologies, some camera technology that they will use to locate the pipe underground, but obviously we wanted to make sure there were redundancies because we need to get this thing stopped," Browner said. "We've always understood that the relief well was the way to permanently stop it."

June 1 marks the first day of hurricane season and it is expected to be the most intense since 2005, the year Katrina hit Louisiana.

Forecasters are predicting up to 23 named storms, with as many as seven major hurricanes, some of which could inevitably head for the already battered Gulf Coast. In past hurricane seasons three of the worst storms ever to make landfall in the Gulf -- Betsy in 1965, Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005—took paths that directly crossed through the leak site.

First Day of Hurricane Season

The man-made sand bars and miles of boom will likely be rendered useless in the event of a hurricane.

"You take anywhere from a 10- to 20-foot storm surge, catch any of that oil…[and] once it gets behind the estuary system that is the basis of life, this could be devastating beyond anything you could ever imagine," Kevin Diaz, a local fisherman, said.

Browner said the administration has a "very grave concern" about hurricanes in the Gulf this summer.

"I think our greatest concern about hurricanes is that if we are capturing the oil and putting it up to a vessel on the surface that vessel will have to leave the area during a hurricane which means the flow will be unabated," Browner said.

Forecasters say that while a storm passing to the west of the oil slick could push oil towards the Mississippi Delta, a hurricane passing to the east of the slick could drive the oil toward the Flordia panhandle.

Some experts even say that a hurricane could help break down the oil.

"When you add a dispersant to the water and there's turbulence it basically churns up the water and gets the oil to break into droplets…a hurricane with very very strong wind and waves does that same thing naturally," Nancy Kinner, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire said.

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