by Agence France-Presse WASHINGTON – British oil giant BP scrambled Tuesday to test the use of a “top kill” to plug up an undersea well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, but admitted it was uncertain the method would work or even be used at all. The top-kill method involves pumping heavy drilling mud down the ruptured well at high pressure so that the mud will overcome the flow of oil and gas coming up the well, and ultimately “kill” it. Although top kills have been successfully carried out all over the world, trying to plug a well 5,000 feet below the surface of the sea would be a first, giving rise to doubts it will work. BP CEO Tony Hayward downplayed the likelihood that the desperate effort will succeed in actually sealing the pipe, which is spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Gulf each day. “It has never been done in 5,000 feet of water,” he told reporters on Monday. “If it was on land we would have a very high confidence of success, but because it’s in 5,000 feet of water, we need to be realistic about the issues around operating in a mile of water. We rate the probability of the success somewhere between 60 percent and 70 percent.” BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said the company was uncertain it would go ahead with the procedure at all. The make-or-break top kill is supposed to get underway shortly after dawn on Wednesday using robotic submarines on the seabed. BP had hoped to try a top kill earlier, but needed more time to get equipment into place and test it. “Over the next day or so, we’ll have ourselves in place to do our diagnostic phase. That could take 12 to 24 hours, although issues could crop up that could further delay that,” Wells told a news conference. “When the actual kill might go forward, the earliest might be tomorrow and that could extend on from there.” Information gathered in the diagnostics phase will help BP understand the pressure levels on a broken blow-out preventer, and the integrity of the casing, well-bore, and other components of the busted well. If the diagnostics show it is safe to proceed, it would take anywhere from half a day to “a couple of days to do it,” said Wells. In an earlier press conference, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said the procedure would take place on Wednesday. “Initially we’ll start with just pumping mud and see if we can outrun the well. Can we pump fast enough to ultimately kill the well?” he said. “We want to avoid putting bridging agents in there that would plug up a line we didn’t want to plug up, but we may need to do that,” he said. Even as they were keeping their fingers crossed that the top kill will succeed, officials were readying backup plans, although several might not be fully operational for several months, officials said. Suttles said that if the top kill fails, relief wells are being drilled to divert the flow and allow the leaking well to be sealed. These will not be ready until August at the earliest, however, meaning tens of millions more barrels of crude could stream into the Gulf. BP engineers also are working on a “junk shot,” which involves injecting assorted debris into the well to clog it up. Another backup plan would entail lowering a new blowout preventer — a backup safety device — on top of one that failed in an earlier attempt shut off the oil flow. The company might also remove a riser at the top of the blow-out preventer to create a surface on which to lower a containment dome. The dome would be sealed in place, not to try to encapsulate the oil but to prevent ice-like hydrates from forming when cold sea water mixes with natural gas. Hydrates caused the failure of BP’s first attempt to stop the massive oil leak by lowering a “top hat” onto it. How bad is it? Asked on Tuesday whether the Gulf spill is America’s worst, Carol Browner, the top White House advisor on energy and environmental matters, told ABC TV, “I don’t think there’s any doubt, unfortunately.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has said he would like to build berms or islands that would provide an outer ring of protection to the coastline against oil advancing toward the state’s coastline, but acknowledged that these could not be put in place in less than six to nine months. Fresh waves of crude oil continually sweep onto Gulf of Mexico shores, clogging fragile Louisiana wetlands, coating helpless sea birds in a layer of thick crude, and wreaking havoc with the local economy despite on the Gulf for its livelihood. Meanwhile, political fallout from the massive oil spill mounted in Washington, with a new round of hearings into the growing disaster. There is growing frustration not only at BP’s lack of success in capping the leak, but at the fact that federal officials also have proven powerless in shutting down the oil flow. U.S. Coast Guard chief Thad Allen, speaking to reporters at the White House Monday, conceded that the U.S. government lacked the expertise and equipment needed to stop the leak 5,000 feet under water, and defended BP’s efforts so far. “They’re exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak,” he insisted. BP has intensified its PR offensive, taking out ads in major U.S. newspapers and pledging up to $500 million to study the impact of the spill. Meanwhile, Hayward vowed to do everything possible to seal the leak and make residents of the soiled region whole. “I feel devastated by that, absolutely gutted. What I can tell you is that we are here for the long haul. We are going to clean every drop of oil off the shore,” the BP executive said. Related Links: The 7 dumbest things in BP’s spill response plan The gulf oil spill in video Is the Gulf oil spill spinning out of control?
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BP gears up for ‘top kill’ to plug oil leak, despite doubts