BP Uses `Junk Shot,' Calls Spill an `Environmental Catastrophe'

BP Plc added golf balls and rubber scraps to the mud it was pumping into its leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well in an effort to stop the spill that Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward called an “environmental catastrophe.”

The company will start and stop pumping to make adjustments “as long as necessary until we’re either successful with it or are convinced it won’t succeed,” Doug Suttles, the BP executive in charge of the spill response, said at an afternoon press conference.

BP said in a statement today that it has spent $930 million responding to the spill, which began after an April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers. The well has been spewing an estimated 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf, a U.S. government panel said yesterday. The midpoint of that estimate would make it the nation’s largest oil spill on record and more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

“This is clearly an environmental catastrophe,” Hayward said today in a CNN television interview.

Today’s comments came two weeks after Hayward was quoted by The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. as saying the spill was “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean.”

The spill has polluted 107 miles (172 kilometers of Louisiana’s beaches and marshes, Governor Bobby Jindal said today in a statement.

Relief Well Stopped

BP suspended drilling on the second of two relief wells intended to permanently seal the damaged well from the bottom, so that its blowout preventer will be available should the top kill fail, Suttles said.

In that event, BP will saw off a section of crimped pipe from the top of the blowout preventer of the leaking well, install the second blowout preventer atop the first, and close its valves to halt the leak.

That will take several days and in the interim, engineers plan to cover the sawn-off pipe with a temporary cap designed to direct some of the oil to a ship on the surface, Suttles said.

Halting work on the second relief well is not a sign that BP has concluded the top kill will fail, Suttles said.

Mud Supplies

The first phase of the top-kill effort used less than 15,000 barrels of drilling mud, Suttles said. BP had 50,000 barrels available and has made sure there are additional supplies of mud and rubber material, he said.

”It’s not going well,” Tad Patzek, chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin, said, based on a live video feed of the leak 2 p.m. New York time.

“You have more or less the equivalent of six fire hoses blasting oil and gas upwards and two fire hoses blasting mud down,” said Patzek, who watched the video feed over much of the past 48 hours. “So you can see that they are at a disadvantage.”

The giant oil slick in the Gulf threatens the region’s fishing and tourism industries. The amount of oil being spilled will help determine BP’s liability for the leak, according to U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

Fishing Shutdown Grows

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today expanded closure of federal waters to fishing to encompass 60,683 square miles (157,169 kilometers), about a quarter of the Gulf of Mexico. The dog leg-shaped area extends from Atchafalaya Bay in Louisiana to a point west of Naples, Florida.

BP added the “junk-shot” materials after pumping mud alone into the well for 11 hours Wednesday. The company previously said it would add the rubber pieces if needed.

The mud alone may not have been sufficient to hold back the oil, said Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice University in Houston.

“It became fluidized in a way, like quicksand,” Alvarez said today in a telephone interview. “When you have the oil bubbling up from this gorge, the oil coming up pushed the mud out.” The rubber materials may allow the mud to set completely enough for BP to cap the well with concrete, he said.

The 19-hour pause in injecting material in the well may have allowed BP to evaluate whether the mud would stop the flow of oil completely enough to allow the company to add concrete, Alvarez said. “I don’t see it as something really weird, necessarily,” he said.

‘Little Bit Extra’

Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of Professional Geoscience Programs at the University of Houston, said he sees BP’s chances of success with top kill at 60 percent to 70 percent.

“If they hadn’t had to do the junk shot, I would have thought the things are working really well, but the fact that they’ve done this junk shot suggests that they decided that they needed to do something a little bit extra to do it more effectively,” Nieuwenhuise said in a telephone interview.

BP leased the rig destroyed in the explosion, the Deepwater Horizon, from Geneva-based Transocean Ltd., the world’s largest deep-water driller. BP has a 65 percent stake in the field, known as Macondo. Its partners in the project are Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Japan’s Mitsui & Co.

Because of safety concerns raised by the blast and spill, President Barack Obama extended a moratorium on deep-water drilling permits by six months. Obama, who traveled to Louisiana today as he sought to blunt criticism of his administration’s response to the spill, said Energy Secretary Steven Chu will work with BP to seek alternatives if the top-kill plan fails.

“There are going to be a lot of judgment calls involved here,” Obama told reporters in Grand Isle, Louisiana. “There are not going to be silver bullets for the problems we face.”

Shares Fall

BP fell 5 percent to 494.8 pence in London and has lost 25 percent of its market value since the blast. It rose 5.9 percent yesterday, its biggest gain in more than a year, after reports of progress on the top kill.

Anadarko, based near Houston, dropped 5.8 percent to $52.33 as of the 4 p.m. close of New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Transocean fell 4.9 percent to $56.77. Mitsui rose 1.4 percent to 1,321 yen in Tokyo.

Congress has scheduled at least 20 hearings on the Deepwater Horizon and offshore drilling since the rig exploded, and the Minerals Management Service and Coast Guard are holding hearings in Louisiana on the reasons for the incident.

The spill has cost BP about $24 million a day. BP’s profit last year averaged $45 million a day. The response has involved more than 1,300 tugs, barges and other vessels. More than 3.15 million feet of containment boom is in place to protect the shoreline and fish nurseries.

About 26,000 damage claims have been filed and 11,650 have already been paid, BP said today.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York at jresnickault@bloomberg.net.

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