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Gulf of Mexico oil spillWorst-case scenario now appears likely

Published 1 June 2010

The failure of the top kill technology on Friday to cap the gusher for more than a few hours led both BP and the administration to say that the wellhead will continue to release oil and gas into the Gulf until sometime in late August; this means a spill of between 30,000,000 and 40,000,000 gallons (Exxon Valdez released 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound); Now officials and scientists are worrying that the environmental disaster could be compounded by a natural one. the hurricane season starts today and runs through November, and forecasters expect one of the most turbulent seasons ever

On Friday morning we led with the story that BP’s top kill device, which was lowered and placed over the top of the gusher during the night between Thursday and Friday, stopped the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf’s water. We quoted The U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen to say that the task was now to ensure that the mud used in the top kill method could hold the oil and gas back long enough for BP to cap the well. “The goal is to put enough mud down the well bore to the point where there is no pressure exerted back by the hydrocarbons and then allow a cement plug to be put in place,” he said. Reuters quoted Allen to say that the next twelve to eighteen hours would be “very critical” (“BP’s top kill effort stops oil flow,” 28 May 2010 HSNW).

The top kill effort was the fifth method, or technology, BP had used to try and cap the well, and all have failed. The New York Times on Sunday quotes Obama administration’s officials to say that it appears more and more likely that the gushing will continue until sometime during the last two weeks of August, when two diagonal wells being drilled will reach the leaking well below the surface of the Gulf floor and cut the flow of oil.

This means that the worst case scenario will become a reality. This scenario, it now appears, is the direct result of BP’s negligence — recklessness would be a better word here: Company documents and expert testimonies before Congress show that BP not only cut corners when it came to drilling safety, but that the company ignored the warnings of its own engineers about dangerous pressure build-up in the well in the days leading to the 20 April explosion. Even more incredibly, the company admits it did not develop a back-up plan for the event of a failure of the blow preventer. Not only did BP, a company employing thousands of talented and experience scientists and engineers, bank everything — everything — on the hope that a piece of machinery would never fail, but the Mineral Management Service (MMS), the government agency in charge of making sure that such reckless gambles with the Gulf’s fragile ecology and the region’s economy are not taken, accepted BP’s risky move.

What is this worst case scenario? The 1989 Exxon