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BP to try smaller dome against oil leak

Two Senate committees will start hearings on the gulf disaster as the oil company moves to Plan B.

May 11, 2010|By Richard Simon and Jill Leovy, Los Angeles Times
(Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — As they prepared to deal with political fallout on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, BP and its contractors scrambled Monday to develop fresh ways to battle the undersea geyser that has pumped about 4 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The latest proposed fix, dubbed a "top hat," is a smaller version of the 100-ton dome that failed over the weekend when hot gas from the well and cold sea water formed slushy hydrate crystals that gummed up the works.

The smaller dimensions of the new steel box, which weighs 2 tons and could be in place within 72 hours, will allow heat from the spurting oil to build up in the interior much more quickly, the company said, preventing hydrates from forming and allowing the oil, water and gas mixture to more easily flow up a pipe to a waiting ship.

David Valentine, a geochemist at UC Santa Barbara who has studied the formation of hydrates in deep ocean water, said the smaller dome should solve the temperature problem. But he expressed concern that the "top hat" might not be heavy enough to offset the buoyant effects of the captured gas. "Two tons seems a bit light to me," he said in an e-mail.

BP also is working on two other fronts to stop the gusher. In one, known as a "hot tap," a hole is drilled in another part of the pipe and a connector is constructed to draw out the oil. Another option is to stop the source of the flow at the wellhead with a "junk shot" — forcing heavy materials into the broken apparatus to stop it up like a clogged toilet.

The leading edge of the oil slick appeared to be less than 10 miles from some parts of the southern Louisiana coast Monday, and southeasterly winds this week could push some oil onshore in remote areas Tuesday, forecasters said.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, at the incident command center in Mobile, Ala., said 24 national wildlife refuges and seven national park units could be affected by the spill. About 15 oiled birds have been treated so far.

The White House disclosed on Monday that it has lent Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist, to the BP effort to restart the failed blowout preventer in the crippled Deepwater Horizon rig.

Chu, a former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has dispatched a team of senior officials from national labs to BP's operations center in Houston. For the last 10 days, the team has worked with the aid of national laboratory supercomputers to figure out what is wrong with the blowout preventer, which should cut off oil flow in the event of an accident.

The oil spill will be center stage on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as industry officials face what is likely to be tough questioning from the Senate's energy and environment committees.

Meanwhile, in Kenner, La., the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling in federal waters, are launching two days of hearings into the cause and environmental effects of the leak.

The energy committee, headed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), is considered industry-friendly. Even in the face of potential devastation to her state, committee member Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) has cautioned against overreaction.

The scene is likely to be different at the environment committee hearing, chaired by California Democrat Barbara Boxer. Boxer, in the midst of a tough reelection campaign, has often been at odds with the industry and has pushed for cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels.

The hearings are just the beginning for Congress as it cranks up its oversight machinery. No fewer than seven congressional panels are conducting investigations.

One goal is to determine what kind of legislation is necessary to prevent future spills, and among those mentioned would be raising industry liability for spills and reinstituting a ban on new offshore drilling.

Some finger-pointing appears likely. Steven Newman, chief executive of Transocean Ltd., which owned and operated the rig and performed the drilling under contract with BP, said in written testimony that the focus should look beyond the failure of the supposedly fail-safe blowout preventer to "why a cased and cemented wellbore suddenly and catastrophically failed."

Tim Probert, president of Halliburton's global business lines, which did the cementing, said in his testimony that the company was confident that its cementing work was completed "in accordance with the requirements of the well owner's well construction plan."

So far, BP says it has spent $350 million battling the spill, including $3.5 million to pay 295 of 4,700 claims it has received for economic damages. The company is required to cover economic damages up to $75 million, but legislation has been introduced to raise that cap to $10 billion.

Times staff writers Julie Cart in Kenner, La., Scott Kraft and Margot Roosevelt in Los Angeles and Jim Tankersley in the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

richard.simon@latimes.com

jill.leovy@latimes.com

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