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'Top kill' to stop Gulf oil spill in 'very critical' stage: US official

Coast Guard's Thad Allen says Friday through Saturday morning is a pivotal time for the top kill procedure, which aims to cap the well feeding the Gulf oil spill. President Obama, in Louisiana, says he is tripling the clean-up manpower in areas where oil is on shore.

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BP is already drilling two relief wells, the first of which would not be ready until August. If the top kill fails, the company will try again try to put a cofferdam over the well to collect the oil. A similar plan failed earlier this month when methane crystals built up, clogging the contraption. Another option is to place a working blowout preventer on top of the malfunctioned one. Both those methods are risky because they will require technicians to cut away part of the pipe that leads to the failed blowout preventer, which could release a larger plume of oil.

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The stakes on the top kill effort rose as the disaster, by most accounts, surpassed that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Every day that the well is still live and oil hits the shore, the political toll rises on President Obama, who is in the midst of coping with his first major disaster.

Mr. Obama's Thursday press conference, where he reiterated that "[spill response] has been our highest priority," lacked enough anecdotes or details about the government's efforts to be effective, says Charles Franklin, a pollster and a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison.

While the Obama administration pushed BP to continue its live camera feed from the well site during the top kill procedure, it also "should be making sure there are television crews on the Coast Guard boats and in the BP command center," in order to counteract a spreading belief that the government is failing, says Mr. Franklin. According to a CBS News poll this week, 45 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the spill, and 70 percent disapprove of BP's response.

"I'm stunned that it took the White House this long to have a press conference and stunned at how poorly the press conference went," says Franklin. "There are clear ways the White House could be communicating better about their efforts."

But much more than Obama's political status is at stake in the top kill gambit, namely the livelihoods of thousands of people who depend on the sea and the lives and health of wildlife and habitat. Cleanup is a pressing concern, and regulatory reform and lawsuits are also under way – though attention is riveted for now on the top kill.

"It's hard to overstate how important killing the well is, because nothing can go forward until they've stopped the flow of oil," says Robert Bryce, author of "Power Hungry."

Associated Press material was used in this report.