Gulf oil spill: Will Obama regret his '90 percent' promise?

President Obama said in his Oval Office address that he wants "up to 90 percent" of the Gulf oil spill leak contained by the end of the month. He is putting his faith in an uncertain BP plan.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama speaks in the White House's State Dining Room Wednesday after meeting with BP executives. Obama has said that he wants to see 'up to 90 percent' of the Gulf oil spill geyser contained in the next few weeks.
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President Obama's declaration that he'd like to see "up to 90 percent" of the Gulf oil spill geyser contained in the next few weeks is a best-case scenario in a worst-case kind of disaster.

From the beginning, BP has failed to meet expectations either to kill the well or contain the oil flowing from it. The containment dome clogged. The "top kill" failed. The "junk shot" accomplished nothing. Even the relatively successful "top cap" operation is apparently still leaking as much as 42,000 barrels (1.8 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily.

BP and its promises to stem the oil are firmly in "the boy who cried wolf" territory. Yet Mr. Obama, in one of the most important speeches of his presidency, pinned no small amount of his credibility in the crisis on a plan that BP itself is trying to downplay.

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Given BP's performance, it was unwise – and unnecessary, to boot, says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

"The '90 percent' line reminds me about the promise that if the stimulus bill is passed, unemployment will peak at 8 percent," says Mr. Abramowitz. "He could've said, 'We'll be able to capture more of it,' but when you put out a number, then people are going to come back and say, 'How come this didn't happen?' From everything that's happened so far, I'd be surprised if they can actually achieve that."

Obama's victories

On Wednesday, Obama won major concessions from BP, including a $20 billion escrow fund and a promise by the company to suspend stockholder dividend payments. But for the Gulf Coast – and much of America – the primary question remains: When is the oil going to stop?

"His promise of '90 percent containment' right around the corner was a huge risk to buy short-term traction," writes Rodger Jones, editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, on the Dallas Morning Views blog.

The president's statement came only a few days after BP had to backtrack on executive Doug Suttles's comment that the flow at the Macondo well would close to "a trickle" soon. Moreover, they've had to defend early decisions not to calculate the flow rate accurately – saying it wasn't important.

New estimates suggest the flow rate could be 60,000 barrels a day – 12 times more than the estimate BP was using. Because of that false early estimate, BP vastly underestimated the amount of capacity it needed to collect the oil leaking from the well. The result is that the one tanker on site is collecting only 18,000 barrels a day, and a second tanker, which is en route, will not arrive until mid-July.

BP's '90 percent' plan

That leaves the company scrambling to come up with interim solution. The president's "up to 90 percent" statement jibes with a BP's interim plan, which was included in a letter on Sunday. Starting this week, BP says it will attach a surface pipe to one of the lines used to pump in drilling mud during the failed "top kill" operation. But now, the line would be used to siphon oil rather than pump in drilling mud.

BP plans to repeat the procedure later in the month, hooking up another pipe to the other line used to pump in mud during "top kill." These two lines could collect an additional 40,000 to 53,000 barrels of oil a day, BP says.

But BP said that plan faces the same kind of difficulties that have plagued other attempts to kill the Deepwater Horizon well. They cautioned, for instance, that junk from the "junk shot" could clog the line or the lines – which are not designed for continuous use – could deteriorate.

This week also highlighted other unforeseeable problems. BP had to temporarily suspend pumping operations Tuesday after a lightning strike sparked a fire on board one the collection ship, the Discoverer Enterprise. No one was injured.

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