BP, Coast Guard Optimistic 'Top Kill' Is Working

APTOPIX Gulf Oil Spill,x-default
A timeline of the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico Gerald Herbert / AP

Almost 19 hours after the "top kill" process of pumping mud and viscous liquid into the broken oil well in the Gulf, officials are claiming the process has worked. The main challenge had been to overcome the pressure of the oil spewing upward from the sub-sea reservoir. The first ship containing 50,000 barrels of the mud mixture reportedly ran out early Thursday, although a second boat was on the way. Coast Guard officials and BP engineers on the scene said they were hopeful the process could be labeled a full success once cement was pumped in to fully block the pipe within the next few hours.

"We'll get this under control," Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, told reporters. Meanwhile, the head of the U.S. Geological Survey now says the Gulf spill is worse than the Exxon Valdez, previously the largest oil spill in American history.

The procedure had been risky from the beginning. BP had put the chances of success at 60 to 70 percent, unsure if the method would work since it had never been tried before at a well nearly a mile below the surface. There was also a risk that the pressure of the downward oozing mud would put new strain on the pipe, causing it to rupture and increase the flow of oil spewing into the Gulf. A series of back up plans had also been prepared if it were to fail, but response officials admitted to NEWSWEEK on Wednesday that the top kill was the most hopeful in a series of "lines of efforts," and if it didn't work, the next best hope would be a relief well that wouldn't be completed until August.

The pending success offers good news for President Obama, who will host a press conference related to the response effort later this morning. One bit of news he's likely to discuss is AP's report about the firing of Elizabeth Birnbaum, director of the Mineral Management service, which is the agency tasked with regulating all domestic drilling. Yet over the past week, attention has turned on the White House for being sluggish to mobilize in the region after the incident (a charge officials strongly refute). Obama also plans a trip to the Gulf this Friday, where he will visit the response command center and meet the on-scene incident commander, Admiral Mary Landry. The fact that the procedure worked allows Obama to offer sober congratulations and thanks, rather than to feverishly brain-storm ideas for more worst-case scenarios.

Yet to many Gulf residents, the worst has already come. A significant amount of oil has already overcome booms protecting the coasts and wetlands of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, putting sensitive ecosystems in peril. The massive oil slick still blankets the northwest part of the Gulf with the omnipresent risk of entering the loop current that would carry it around the Florida peninsula. "Even when we stop [the leak], we're going to be cleaning this stuff up for a long time; it's just horrible," said an administration official.

As favorable news trickles in, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will on Thursday offer a silver lining to environmental groups, who have protested any new additional drilling until a full investigation was complete on the Deepwater Horizon incident. Salazar is expected to order a last-minute halt to drilling that Shell had planned in the Arctic this summer, starting next month when the ice melts—an exploratory project almost identical to BP's project in the Gulf, but in shallower water and with the added variable of Arctic temperatures impeding the response to a potential spill. Environmentalists, including Greenpeace activists who had attempted to physically prevent Shell from moving equipment to the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, were concerned that a spill of any size in the Arctic Circle would be enormously difficult to clean up, and threaten the habitat of several endangered species. Shell offered Department of the Interior officials (as well as NEWSWEEK) continued assurances that safety was a priority and that a spill response plan had been drafted in case of an accident.

Yet Salazar still said no—or at least, not until the summer of 2011, the next window when Arctic ice is at its minimum. According to an Interior official who spoke to the LA Times, "Secretary Salazar determined that the country must take a cautious approach in the Arctic, and gather additional scientific information about resources, risks and environmental sensitivities before making decisions about potential future lease sales."