BP remained cautious about the outcome of the much anticipated “top kill” procedure, as did President Barack Obama, whose credibility stands to suffer if one of the country’s worst environmental catastrophes does not end soon.
But the fact that the London-based energy giant was able to launch the complex maneuver around midday and keep it on track in the first hours was a welcome respite from a string of failures and setbacks in the 37 days since a rig blast triggered the disaster.
Undersea robots were helping to inject heavy fluids and ultimately cement pumped down about a mile to the sea-bed well, while BP chief executive Tony Hayward and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu monitored operations together in Houston.
“The operation is proceeding as we planned it,” Hayward said in a media briefing four hours after launching the top kill strategy.
“It will be another 24 hours before we know whether or not this has been successful,” he added.
The embattled CEO stood by BP’s 60-70 percent odds of success. But top kill, a routine procedure on the surface, has never been attempted at such depths, prompting one industry expert to predict less favorable odds.
“You have got some of the smartest guys in the business trying to figure this out, but it has never been done before,” David Pursell, partner at Houston investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co, told Reuters Insider.
“I think the odds have to be 50 percent or less,” he added.
Obama said that if successful, BP’s plan to cap the well should greatly reduce or eliminate the flow of hundreds of thousands of gallons (liters) of crude billowing into the Gulf.
If it fails, “there are other approaches that may be viable,” he said on a trip to California.
Obama, who has told aides to “plug the damn hole,” will head to Louisiana on Friday for the second time since the April 20 rig blast that killed 11 and unleashed the oil.
If the top kill fails, the next approach would be to install a containment device over the broken blowout preventer, a structure at the top of the well on the ocean floor, said BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said at a briefing with the Coast Guard Wednesday.
It is still unclear how much oil is flowing from the well, but it is already shaping up to be the worst oil spill in U.S. history and a long-term threat to a rich ecosystem.
The disaster is also reshaping the U.S. oil industry. Obama is expected to announce on Thursday that he will continue to hold off issuing deep water drilling permits off the Gulf of Mexico, but allow permits to be issued for shallow water drilling, a government source told Reuters.
The oil’s destruction of critical habitats continued to spread, with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal saying that more than 100 miles of the state’s 400-mile coastline were now affected.
PIVOTAL DAYS FOR OBAMA, BP
These days may be critical for BP and Obama.
BP’s reputation and its big presence in the United States is at stake and investors, who have wiped $50 billion off BP’s market value since the start of the spill, will watch closely to see whether the latest attempt to seal the well works.
BP shares seesawed in London trading on Wednesday, with investors boosting the share price about 2.6 percent at one point before it closed up 1.4 percent. BP’s announcement that it had launched top kill came after London markets had closed.