BP Oil Spill: Top Kill Fails

View a timeline of the devastating oil spill in the gulf. BP-AP

After three days of pumping a viscous mud mixture into the oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, on-scene engineers have admitted that the Top Kill measure designed to stop the leak of oil has failed. The procedure had been designed to overcome the pressure of hydrocarbons surging upward. But despite the density of the mud, engineers couldn't pump in enough to stop the flow. "It's like an arm-wrestling match of two equally strong forces," BP managing director Robert Dudley told reporters—except that the surging oil remains the dominant force.

The next step, say Coast Guard and BP officials, is to take another shot at a containment dome, which was the initial strategy to stop the leak just a week after the oil started gushing. Methane ice crystals formed in the dome, which prevented it from sitting in a stationary fashion on the sea floor. But this time, robotic submarines will cut the pipe that is leaking and place a new custom-built dome called a "lower marine rising package cap" over the severed pipe, which ideally would be more effective. The new dome will reportedly have a heavier base, making it more dense.

There are risks involved in the new strategy. For one, the new, dense base could further damage the well head and, by removing the jumbled pipe, risk to increase the flow 10 to 15 percent. It could also be plagued by the problems of the first dome if the liquid in the dome contains too much water. The bigger drawback, however, is that any containment dome, even if effective, wouldn't stop the flow of oil. Under the best circumstances, it would funnel the crude to ships waiting on the surface, a mile above. Only when a relief well was completed (currently scheduled for mid-August) would the stream be permanently stopped.

Yet by now, 40 days after the initial explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, crews are running out of options, desperately grasping for new ideas. If the second containment dome doesn't work, BP—which has slowly begun to reduce the transparency of its efforts—says it will attempt to place a second blowout preventer on top of the first (which failed and caused the initial surge of gas, leading to the explosion). The five-story-tall piece of equipment is designed to overcome the pressure of surging oil and gas, which makes it a viable, albeit expensive and logistically difficult, solution that could prolong the problem for weeks.

President Obama, currently spending the Memorial Day weekend at his home in Chicago, released a statment Saturday evening saying that the second dome strategy "will be difficult and will take several days." He also told crews on Friday when he visited the region that they should continue to formulate backup plans. Instead of drilling one relief well, the White House has ordered BP to drill two, just in case. In the meantime, however, Obama said he was prepared to greenlight an idea proposed by local officials, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to build a "sand boom" designed to permanently keep the oil from infiltrating sensitive wetlands. If it can't be stopped at its source, they say, at least prevent it from doing further damage on land.

With Ian Yarett