"Top Kill" Gambit Best Hope for Ending Oil Spill

Oil absorbent material boom and oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 25, 2010.
AP Photo
Updated 8:32 p.m. ET

One of BP's top executives says crews trying to plug a massive Gulf oil leak are pumping mud into a blown-out well as effectively and efficiently as they had hoped.

BP PLC Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Wednesday night that the company would continue to monitor the procedure known as a top kill and that officials should know in the next 24 hours whether it has been successful.

BP started pumping the heavy mud into the leaking Gulf of Mexico well Wednesday in the company's boldest attempt yet to plug the gusher that has spewed millions of gallons of oil over the last five weeks.

BP hoped the mud could overpower the steady stream of oil. The company wants to eventually inject cement into the well to permanently seal it.

The stakes are high. Fisherman, hotel and restaurant owners, politicians and residents along the coast are fed up with BP's so far ineffective attempts to stop the oil leak that sprang after an offshore drilling rig exploded April 20. Eleven workers were killed, and by the most conservative estimate, 7 million gallons of crude have spilled into the Gulf, fouling Louisiana's marshes and coating birds and other wildlife.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

The top kill has worked above ground but has never before been tried 5,000 feet beneath the sea. Company officials peg its chance of success at 60 to 70 percent.

President Barack Obama said "there's no guarantees" it will work. The president planned a trip to Louisiana on Friday.

"We're going to bring every resource necessary to put a stop to this thing," he said.

The Coast Guard says 100 miles of coastline in Louisiana is being hit by oil.

But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said at an afternoon press conference that although the "top kill" operation would take several days to complete, he expected to know by later Wednesday evening whether it was working successfully, based on initial pressure readings.

Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said they were enraged at the sluggish response so far from BP, the Coast Guard and the federal government.

Nungesser excoriated BP's "leadership that doesn't have a plan and won't approve our plan," and vowed to implement his own cleanup plan on some affected islands beginning Saturday, with or without approval.

"They said it wouldn't come ashore - it's ashore," Nungesser said. "We will lose more coastline from this catastrophe than from all four hurricanes - Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike."

The Democratic operative and commentator James Carville - a Louisiana native - also spoke at the press event, saying he hopes President Obama "goes to see what is actually happening in the marsh. What's really happening is nothing."

Jindal added, "As much hard boom as they can fit into Air Force One, I hope they'll bring with them."

From a drill ship an engine with 30,000 horsepower - the equivalent of 50 Indy 500 cars -began pumping heavy drilling fluids a mile down into the well's broken five-story blowout preventer. BP's goal is to overwhelm the gushing oil and gas with a superior force - to bully it back down - and then seal it off with cement, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

"Think about sucking coke through a straw," said Dr. Ed Overton, an environmental scientist at Louisiana State University. "They want to switch from coke to a milkshake which slows it down, and ultimately get such a thick milkshake it won't flow at all."

Strassmann reports there are concerns that if the pressure of the oil shooting from the well is too great, the top kill attempt could actually force the broken valves open even wider, making the spill worse.

"But if you don't take the risk, you don't make the touchdown," Overton told CBS.

A live video stream Wednesday showed pictures of the blowout preventer, as well as the oil gushing out. At other times, the feed showed mud spewing out, but BP said this was not cause for alarm.

BP had threatened to turn off the live cameras during the procedure, but relented under pressure from lawmakers.

Gene Beck, a petroleum engineering professor at Texas A&M in College Station, said the endeavor would likely fail quickly if the mud could not overcome the pressure of the oil.

"The longer it goes, maybe the better news that is," Beck said. "They are hoping that nothing breaks, that they don't have any failures in what they're pumping into."

If the top kill procedure doesn't work, the effort should be turned over the military, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Neb., told CNN.

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"We did this before, after first Gulf War with four inches of oil in Persian Gulf for thousands of square miles," he said.

Meanwhile, dozens of witness statements obtained by The Associated Press show a combination of equipment failure and a deference to the chain of command impeded the system that should have stopped the gusher before it became an environmental disaster.

In a handwritten statement to the Coast Guard obtained by the AP, Transocean rig worker Truitt Crawford said: "I overheard upper management talking saying that BP was taking shortcuts by displacing the well with saltwater instead of mud without sealing the well with cement plugs, this is why it blew out."

BP's "Cozy" Connections

At a Coast Guard hearing in New Orleans, Doug Brown, chief rig mechanic aboard the platform, testified that the trouble began at a meeting hours before the blowout, with a "skirmish" between a BP official and rig workers who did not want to replace heavy drilling fluid in the well with saltwater.


The switch presumably would have allowed the company to remove the fluid and use it for another project, but the seawater would have provided less weight to counteract the surging pressure from the ocean depths.

Brown said the BP official, whom he identified only as the "company man," overruled the drillers, declaring, "This is how it's going to be." Brown said the top Transocean official on the rig grumbled, "Well, I guess that's what we have those pinchers for," which he took to be a reference to devices on the blowout preventer, the five-story piece of equipment that can slam a well shut in an emergency.

Frustration with BP and the federal government has only grown since then as efforts to stop the leak have failed.

The prospects of a successful operation come as public disenchantment with both BP and the government's handling of the crisis has increased. According to a new CBS News poll, 70 percent of Americans disapprove of BP's handling of the disaster, compared with just 18 percent who approve. More people are dissatisfied with the U.S. government's efforts than not, by a mark of 45 percent to 35 percent.

CBS Poll: 70% Say BP Handling Oil Spill Badly

Jindal and Nungesser, both outspoken critics, led a boat tour around the oil-fouled delta near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Through the Mississippi's South Pass, there were miles-long passages that showed no indication of the oil, and the air smelled fresh and salty. Nearby fish were leaping and tiny seabirds dove into the water.

But not far away at Pass a Loutre, the odor wafting above the oily water was that of an auto shop.

"We have yet to see a plan from the Coast Guard, a plan from BP, a plan to keep it from coming in, a plan to pick it up," Nungesser said of the oil.

"There's no wildlife in Pass a Loutre. It's all dead," he said.