Obama's Gulf oil spill ultimatum: Clock is ticking, what can BP do?

The Obama administration has told BP that it has until Sunday night to come up with better plans to contain the leak in the Gulf oil spill. But BP has ignored at least one ultimatum already.

By , Staff writer

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    A support ship related to the collection of oil in the Gulf oil spill transitions through a sheen of oil. BP is sending other ships that could dramatically decrease the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, but they will not be on site for a month.
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According to the Obama administration playbook, this is what keeping its boot on the neck of BP in the Gulf oil spill looks like.

By the end of today, the administration has warned BP, the company must have a new and better plan for collecting more of the oil leaking from the well and into the Gulf of Mexico. The ultimatum was sent to BP in a letter Friday.

Currently, BP is collecting 650,000 gallons of oil a day with its containment cap on the well. But BP’s live cam suggests huge volumes of oil are still leaking out, and BP’s plan to capture more of the oil won’t be in place for a month, the company says.

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That is not good enough for the Coast Guard or President Obama. Yet it is unclear what, exactly, the federal government can do to BP if it does not comply.

Already, the administration has issued one public ultimatum to BP: Last month it gave BP three days to switch to a less toxic and more effective chemical dispersant. BP essentially ignored the request, though at least one chemical dispersant company said it had ample stocks to supply BP.

Obama's limited options

In truth, BP has ample reason to do everything in its power to capture as much oil as possible. It is a staple of British stockholders because of its regular and substantial dividend payments, but those will be threatened at least until it gains some greater measure of control over the leak.

Yet the Obama administration must appear to be doing something, and one of the few options available is to strew politically hot coals beneath BP’s feet in hopes that the company will move faster.

President Obama spoke to this impotence in a quote released by the White House Friday.

“Even though I am President of the United States my powers are not limitless,” Obama said at Camardelle’s Live Bait and Boiled Seafood in Grand Isle, La., June 4. “So I can’t dive down there and plug the hole. I can’t suck it up with a straw. All I can do is make sure that I put honest, hardworking, smart people in place.”

BP’s current plan involves moving two pairs of production ships and tankers to the area above the leak. They would replace a cluster of vessels at the site and increase the amount of oil that BP could collect or burn off from the current 650,000 gallons to 2.1 million gallons.

But those ships will not be in place for a month.

What can BP do?

BP has said it would respond to the administration ultimatum by Sunday night. But it is not known what BP could do to increase its oil-gathering capacity in the short term.

One idea includes using the pipes employed to pump in drilling mud during the failed “top kill” effort. Instead of pumping in mud, they would be used to siphon off more oil to a drilling rig that would burn it off. BP estimates that this method could remove another 420,000 gallons of oil daily and could be in place next week, AP reports.

The amount of oil still leaking from the well is a mystery. A group of scientists estimated that between 840,000 and 1.7 million gallons of oil were leaking from well before the cut-and-cap operation earlier this month.

But by cutting off the pipe attached to the well, which was though to be limiting the leak like a kinked and leaking garden hose, that maneuver might have significantly increased the flow of oil into the Gulf.

The scientists are now working on determining the current flow.

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