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Current timeline to shut down Gulf of Mexico oil spill: three months

Federal officials gave a sobering appraisal of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill Sunday, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar saying 'ultimate relief' was 90 days away.

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Unlike the Exxon Valdez disaster, where a tanker with a known amount of oil ran aground off Alaska, an oil pocket was opened when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank after exploding April 20. All that is preventing the free flow of oil – which could amount to tens of millions of gallons – is the kinked riser pipe, which is springing leaks.

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The Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of oil in 1989. The Deepwater Horizon accident has so far leaked about 1.6 million gallons of oil, the Coast Guard estimates.

The “ultimate relief,” said Secretary Salazar, was to drill a relief well. But that was still “90 days out,” he added, also speaking on “State of the Union.”

The result is that, as the oil increases, pushing closer to Gulf coast shores, no one appears to have an idea of how to shut off the tap.

'Inner space'

The difficulty is the depth of the wellhead. Once the emergency mechanisms designed to shut down the wellhead failed, BP entered uncharted territory.

No emergency oil operation has ever been carried out at 5,000 feet below the sea. Human divers would be killed at such a depth, and the water pressure is so great that only certain equipment can withstand it.

Comparing it with the difficulties of outer space exploration, Allen called this realm of the deep sea “inner space.”

Yet until the wellhead is shut down, both BP and the federal government will merely be trying to limit the damage. With environmental, economic, and political pressure mounting, however, the federal government appears to be taking more authority upon itself.

“BP is the responsible party,” says Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on “State of the Union.” “They’re responsible for getting the well shut off with oversight from the Coast Guard.”

But, she added, “the Coast Guard has taken on a lot of the operational duties.”

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