BP Persists on `Top Kill,' Prepares Backup Plan to Stop Spill

BP Plc will use undersea robots to begin cutting damaged pipe from its leaking oil well off Louisiana within the next several days, risking temporarily increasing the flow as it seeks to end the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the latest procedure to attach a pipe to the leak so the oil can flow to a surface vessel for capturing, White House Energy Adviser Carol Browner said yesterday. The decision follows a failed effort to plug the well.

The cutting will commence soon, BP spokesman Jon Pack said today. Preparation work continues, and the operation is on track to be completed by June 6, Pack said.

“BP and the government have no choice but to proceed,” Jason Kenney, an analyst at ING Commercial Banking in Edinburgh, who has a “buy” on the shares and owns none, said yesterday. “This is war. As in all wars, it rarely goes smooth.”

The failure to cap the well came as a congressional committee released reports by BP to federal officials of operation problems in the Macondo oil field six weeks before a blowout on April 20 destroyed Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers.

Shares Fall

BP shares fell 46 cents, or 7.7 percent, to 5.37 euros in German trading as of 12:34 p.m. local time. Trading in London was closed today. BP fell 5 percent to 494.8 pence in London on May 28 and has lost 25 percent since the blast.

“The chances of success are probably comparable with top kill but the risks are higher because what they’re going to do is cut off the existing riser which has been kinked on the sea- bed for the past month,” Geoffrey Maitland, a professor of energy engineering at Imperial College in London, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television today.

Using remote-controlled vehicles at the mile-deep well, BP plans to shear away most of the damaged pipe that once rose from the well to the Deepwater Horizon. Then it will make a more precise cut with a diamond-toothed band saw, BP Managing Director Robert Dudley said in television interviews yesterday.

That will make a clean junction for a gasket-lined cap intended to catch most of the oil and route it to the surface through a pipe, Dudley said.

Engineers expect the method to work better than a smaller pipe used to capture 22,000 barrels of oil, he said.

Risks

“There is little else they can do right now, so they should try it,” Tad Patzek, chair of petroleum and geosystems engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said yesterday in an interview. “The cap will be at the end of essentially a mile of pipe. It will be heavy and it may be bent as it is jerked around by the pressure of the escaping oil and gas.”

BP hopes that by installing the cap closer to the source of the leak, the oil will be warmer, reducing the likelihood that icy hydrates will form, blocking the tubing, as they did with a previous effort, BP’s Pack said today.

The well has spewed from 12,000 barrels to 19,000 barrels of oil a day, a government panel estimated May 27. Government experts estimate the spill will increase over the four to seven days BP needs to fix the cap, Browner said in a “Face the Nation” interview yesterday on CBS.

“The worst is that we have oil leaking until August” when BP says it will complete the first of two so-called relief wells intended to plug the damaged well securely from the bottom, Browner said.

Relief Well

BP said today that the first relief well, which it began drilling May 2, is now at 12,090 feet, two-thirds of the way to completion. The drilling effort is “on track, even slightly ahead,” said BP’s Pack.

The new funnel may enable BP to capture as much as 90 percent of the oil and gas escaping from the well, Dudley said on “Face the Nation.” BP is also preparing a second blowout preventer that may be bolted on in place of the cap and used to try again to stop all leakage, he said.

President Barack Obama ordered BP’s cleanup efforts tripled in oiled areas that encompass 107 miles of shoreline and 30 acres of tidal marsh.

“Every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people of the Gulf Coast region, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us,” Obama said in a statement Saturday. “It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking.”

Previous Trouble

BP had told U.S. regulators six weeks before the Deepwater Horizon exploded that workers had difficulty maintaining control at the rig, according to e-mails released yesterday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee investigating the leak.

A March 10 e-mail to Frank Patton, the Minerals Management Service’s drilling engineer for the New Orleans district, from BP executive Scherie Douglas said the company planned to sever the pipe connecting the well to the rig and plug the hole because of problems controlling the well.

As early as the second week of March, BP was enlisting help from J. Connor Consulting Inc., a Houston-based firm that advises some of the world’s biggest energy companies on how to respond to oil spills, according to the e-mails.

“You can list at least seven barriers that have been broken for this accident to occur,” BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward told reporters yesterday in Venice, Louisiana.

“The rig crew failed to identify that there were hydrocarbons in the well bore. They failed to implement the right well control procedures,” Hayward said.

The spill may cost BP $22 billion should it continue through early August, when the company expects to plug the leak with one of the relief wells, Kenney, the ING analyst, said yesterday. That compared with his estimate of $5.3 billion had the latest attempt to plug the well worked.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Polson in New York at jpolson@bloomberg.net.

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