A third attempt to jam a junk shot of shredded tires and golf balls into the broken-down blowout preventer on top of BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico has failed, darkening prospects for BP's high-stakes "top kill" maneuver that began Wednesday.
In a dramatic turn from early optimism, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles told reporters in Grand Isle, La., on Saturday that so far the attempt to stem the flow using heavy drilling mud and junk shots has not worked.
The company is now reevaluating whether it will keep trying the top kill or move onto the next backup plan, placing a reconfigured cofferdam over the runaway riser on top of the well. A similar plan failed earlier this month.
"We'll get this under control," Coast Guard Commander Thad Allen said on Thursday, announcing some headway in the effort to push down, and stall, the geyser.
At 18,000 feet into the bedrock lies the Macondo oil deposit, which, thanks to the Deepwater Horizon accident, is now spewing its crude cargo at between 14,000 and 19,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. It is Day 40 of the disaster.
Estimated by BP to hold 50 million barrels, the seam of oil has emptied as much as 740,000 barrels (one barrel is 42 gallons), or about 1.5 percent of the total. Because of the immense pressures of the earth's innards, geologists say, the deposit will completely unload into the Gulf unless the Deepwater Horizon well is capped.
With those numbers literally pressing up from the earth's core, BP and government scientists are running out of immediate options to kill the runaway well.
Another back-up plan in the works is to place a second blowout preventer on top of the one that failed after a "kick" of gas exploded on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, killing 11 and causing the nation's worst-ever oil spill disaster.
The most certain way to stop the leak is the drilling of a relief well that would take pressure off the main wellhead and allow BP to cap it with cement.
That work is underway, but could take another 60 days or more to complete. Using the higher estimates, by then up to another 1.2 million barrels of oil could have leaked out, putting the total at nearly 2 million barrels. The Exxon Valdez spilled 257,000 barrels. At the current rate, emptying the entire Macondo deposit would take just over 7 years.
Having seen previous efforts to kill the well fail, the American public – not to mention BP and the White House – has been holding its collective breath as the top kill effort proceeds. Millions of people have been mesmerized by the BP live video feed of the procedure where, on Saturday, they could see for themselves that, so far, the plume is still going.