VENICE, La., (Reuters) – BP made promising strides in its latest bid to capture some of the oil spewing from its ruptured deep-sea well in the Gulf of Mexico, while President Barack Obama called off an overseas trip and prepared for another visit on Friday to the spill-stricken U.S. Gulf Coast.
After failing days ago to plug the well, BP Plc managed on Thursday to shear away the gushing well pipe a mile (1.6 km) below the ocean surface, then lowered a containment cap over the jagged hole left atop the crippled wellhead assembly in its latest bid to curtail the oil flow.
The placement of the cylindrical apparatus was confirmed by the U.S. disaster response chief, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, in a statement describing the move as a “positive development” but “only a temporary and partial fix.” “It will be some time before we can confirm that this method will work and to what extent it will mitigate the release of oil into the environment,” Allen said.
Once the containment cap is firmly in place over the crippled wellhead, the plan is to start funneling at least some of the escaping oil and gas into a large hose that would carry it from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to the surface, where it would be collected in ships and safely removed.
Confronting one of the biggest tests of his presidency as his party girds for tough congressional elections in November, the White House said Obama called off a trip to Australia and Indonesia set for this month to focus more on the oil spill and other matters.
The White House said in a statement early on Friday that Obama spoke on Thursday night to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to inform them of his decision. The trip had been scheduled for June 13-19.
Crude oil has been pouring unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico at up to 19,000 barrels (800,000 gallons/3 million litres) a day since an explosion April 20 that demolished a BP-contracted drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 crewmen and unleashing an environmental disaster of epic proportions.
There was no immediate comment on the status of the wellhead containment operation from BP officials.
But BP chief executive Tony Hayward wrote in a column published on Friday in the Wall Street Journal that the latest approach “should enable us to contain and collect the majority of the oil and gas flowing from the well.”
Hayward added that he expected to have the new containment system in place “in the next few days.” He also suggested that the oil industry “evaluate its business model,” noting that production companies have for decades “relied on outsourcing work to specialized contractors.”
Such was the case with the doomed Deepwater Horizon exploration rig, which was owned by Transocean Ltd, while Halliburton Co was working to seal the well when the blowout occurred.
British energy giant BP — facing a criminal probe by the U.S. government amid mounting civil lawsuits, plunging shares and growing questions about his credit-worthiness — planned an eagerly awaited conference call at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) with financial market analysts.
The company’s latest bid to curb its undersea gusher offers the most immediate hope of gaining control over the worst oil spill in U.S. history. BP has said it does not expect to be able to fully halt the oil flow until August, when two relief wells are due for completion.
A live video feed of BP’s underwater robots working at the blowout site showed dark clouds of material belching from around the containment cap.
An initial attempt weeks ago to siphon off some of the oil by lowering a large cofferdam over the well ended in failure when slushy gas hydrates clogged the vessel. The new, smaller containment cap is equipped with valves to allow the injection of methanol or warm water to prevent a buildup of hydrates.
With television news footage increasingly filled with images of toxic black goo lapping into fragile marshlands and coating sea birds, Obama has come under growing political pressure to take more decisive action on the crisis.
Obama’s trip Friday to the Gulf Coast, his third to the region since the rig explosion, will include discussions with “real people,” including residents and business owners affected by the calamity, the White House said.
“His attention needs to be here,” said Windsor Semexant, a New Orleans church pastor visiting a BP office in Venice, Louisiana to seek cleanup work for members of his congregation. “The whole world is watching the oil spill.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Thursday dismissed suggestions from some critics that Obama needs to show more emotion in dealing with the spill, saying, “Pounding on a podium is not going to fix a hole in the ocean.”
The president himself said in an interview broadcast Thursday night on CNN that he was “furious at this entire situation” because “somebody didn’t think through the consequences of their actions.”
Louisiana is the state hardest hit so far by oil, though the spill also has fouled beaches in Mississippi and Alabama.
Government fishing restrictions across much of the region have idled many thousands of fisherman, shrimpers and other seafood workers. Tourism also has suffered.
Government forecasters said part of the far-flung oil sheen had crept to within 6 miles (10 km) of Florida’s Gulf coast panhandle and was expected to reach the white, sandy shore there in days.
The U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research projected that the oil slick would be driven by wind and currents around the Florida peninsula by early summer and up the East Coast, possibly as far as North Carolina.
Two U.S. lawmakers have called on BP to suspend shareholder dividends until the full costs of the oil spill cleanup are calculated. London-based investment bank Evolution Securities said in a research note: “We believe BP will bow to political pressure in the U.S. and suspend dividend payments for the remainder of 2010.”
Ratings agencies Moody’s and Fitch Ratings downgraded BP’s credit ratings on Thursday and said they might cut them further on rising concerns over clean-up and legal costs. Fitch said clean-up costs alone could exceed its worst-case scenario of around $5 billion in any one year.
The Coast Guard said late on Thursday that oil spill investigators were responding to renewed reports of tar balls and other oily debris near several islands in the Florida Keys, which extend from the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.
The substances will be tested to see if they originated from the Gulf spill. Tar balls previously found in the Keys were determined to be unrelated to the blowout.