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BP oil spill: 'top kill' failure means well may gush until August

After the failure of 'top kill,' BP said it will concentrate on containing, not stopping the leak. As failures to stop the BP oil spill mount, the federal government is careful not to promise too much.

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In his Saturday statement, Obama in some ways sounded as though he was in the midst of launching an ad hoc space program to the sea floor. At a time when the nation is wanting him to give the aura of presidential power – that there is no solution beyond the scope of his administration – the statement instead cast him as the reluctant scientist, speaking of probabilities and technical challenges.

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With “the surest way to stop the flow of oil – the drilling of relief wells” – needing “several months to complete … engineers and experts have explored a variety of alternatives,” Obama said.

“While we initially received optimistic reports about the [top kill] procedure, it is now clear that it has not worked,” he said, later adding: “While we were hopeful that the ‘top kill’ would succeed, we were also mindful that there was a significant chance it would not.”

So the Coast Guard directed BP to launch a new procedure, he said, “which is not without risk and has never been attempted before at this depth…. It will be difficult and will take several days”

From here on, in fact, any new plans to contain or cap the well will be comparably riskier or less likely to work than “top kill,” which was seen as BP’s best and most reliable option. This is because BP tried the maneuvers it thought most promising first, culminating in the failed “top kill” effort.

The next attempt to stop the leak will involve cutting the riser pipe and fitting a new containment valve, called the lower marine riser package (LMRP), atop it.

If the LMRP works, it could allow BP to collect all the oil leaking from the wellhead. If it fails, it could increase the amount of oil leaking in the Gulf. The riser pipe is kinked like a garden hose, and many scientists believe it is restricting the flow of oil somewhat.

Mr. Dudley countered Sunday that BP estimated that any increase in oil flow would be small.

With the prospect for containing the oil becoming progressively less likely with every mounting failure, Obama and his lieutenants are left to try to prepare Gulf coast residents for the worst without looking as though they have already accepted it.

The long-term federal relief effort, while unsatisfying to Gulf residents watching oil choke their coasts, is at least one area where the government can exercise control.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill