Image: Discoverer Enterprise drillship
Win McNamee  /  Getty Images
The Discoverer Enterprise drillship sits above the disaster site on Saturday. BP's strategies for trying to stop the Gulf spill are being deployed from the ship.
updated 5/30/2010 12:30:32 AM ET 2010-05-30T04:30:32

The most ambitious bid yet to stop the worst oil spill in U.S. history ended in failure Saturday after BP was unable to overwhelm the gusher of crude with heavy fluids and junk. President Obama called the setback "as enraging as it is heartbreaking."

The oil giant immediately began readying its next attempted fix, using robot submarines to cut the pipe that's gushing the oil and cap it with funnel-like device, but the only guaranteed solution remains more than two months away.

The company determined the "top kill" had failed after it spent three days pumping heavy drilling mud into the crippled well 5,000 feet underwater. It's the latest in a series of failures to stop the crude that's fouling marshland and beaches, as estimates of how much oil is leaking grow more dire.

The spill is the worst in U.S. history — exceeding even the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster — and has dumped between 18 million and 40 million gallons into the Gulf, according to government estimates.

"This scares everybody, the fact that we can't make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven't succeeded so far," BP PLC Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Saturday. "Many of the things we're trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 feet."

'Enraging as it is heartbreaking'
Frustration has grown as drifting oil closes beaches and washes up in sensitive marshland. The damage is underscored by images of pelicans and their eggs coated in oil. Below the surface, oyster beds and shrimp nurseries face certain death. Fishermen complain there's no end in sight to the catastrophe that's keeping their boats idle.

News that the top kill fell short drew a sharply worded response from President Barack Obama, a day after he visited the Gulf Coast to see the damage firsthand.

"It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking, and we will not relent until this leak is contained, until the waters and shores are cleaned up, and until the people unjustly victimized by this manmade disaster are made whole," Obama said Saturday.

Image: LMRP cap
BP
This illustration by BP shows the planned cap on the "lower marine riser package".
In the days after the spill, BP was unable to use robot submarines to close valves on the massive blowout preventer atop the damaged well, then two weeks later ice-like crystals clogged a 100-ton box the company tried placing over the leak. Earlier this week, engineers removed a mile-long siphon tube after it sucked up a disappointing 900,000 gallons of oil from the gusher.

In the latest try, BP engineers pumped more than 1.2 million gallons of heavy drilling mud into the well and also shot in assorted junk, including metal pieces and rubber balls.

The hope was that the mud force-fed into the well would overwhelm the upward flow of oil and natural gas. But Suttles said most of the mud escaped out of the damaged pipe that's leaking the oil, called a riser.

'Can't guarantee success'
Suttles said BP is already preparing for the next attempt to stop the leak that began after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in April, killing 11 people.

The company plans to use robot submarines to cut off the damaged riser, and then try to cap it with a containment valve. The effort is expected to take between four and seven days.

Video: Gulf locals watch, wait "We're confident the job will work but obviously we can't guarantee success," Suttles said of the new plan, declining to handicap the likelihood it will work.

He said that cutting off the damaged riser isn't expected to cause the flow rate of leaking oil to increase significantly.

The permanent solution to the leak, a relief well currently being drilled, won't be ready until August, BP says.

Experts have said that a bend in the damaged riser likely was restricting the flow of oil somewhat, so slicing it off and installing a new containment valve is risky.

"If they can't get that valve on, things will get much worse," said Philip W. Johnson, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama.

Johnson said he thinks BP can succeed with the valve, but added: "It's a scary proposition."

'This summer's lost'
Word that the top-kill had failed hit hard in fishing communities along Louisiana's coast.

"Everybody's starting to realize this summer's lost. And our whole lifestyle might be lost," said Michael Ballay, the 59-year-old manager of the Cypress Cove Marina in Venice, La., near where oil first made landfall in large quantities almost two weeks ago.

Video: Fears hit Florida Johnny Nunez, owner of Fishing Magician Charters in Shell Beach, La., said the spill is hurting his business during what's normally the best time of year — and there's no end in sight.

"If fishing's bad for five years, I'll be 60 years old. I'll be done for," he said after watching BP's televised announcement.

The top official in coastal Plaquemines Parish said news of the top kill failure brought tears to his eyes.

"They are going to destroy south Louisiana. We are dying a slow death here," said Billy Nungesser, the parish president. "We don't have time to wait while they try solutions. Hurricane season starts on Tuesday."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: BP under pressure

  1. Transcript of: BP under pressure

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: Just a short while ago, British Petroleum announced their latest attempt to plug that oil leak beneath the Gulf of Mexico has not worked. For days, crews have been pumping heavy fluids into the leaking well in an operation called top kill. But tonight, despite initial high hopes, those in charge say the tricky gamble has not been enough to stop the flow of oil, and that they will try yet another plan. In the face of an ever-growing environmental catastrophe, failure, of course, is not an option. NBC 's Anne Thompson is just back from an aerial tour of the spill with a top BP official. She joins us now from New Orleans to tell us where they go from here. Anne , good evening.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Lester . This is very discouraging news for the Louisiana coastline. This afternoon in a conference call, top BP officials, engineers and top members of the Obama administration assessed the progress of top kill and decided it was time to kill it. After four days of heavy mud and junk shots to try and plug the well 5,000 feet deep, top kill didn't produce the results the world wanted.

    Mr. DOUG SUTTLES: So after three full days of attempting top kill, we have been unable to overcome the flow from the well.

    THOMPSON: What's next ? BP will cut off a piece of the leaking pipe and place a small containment dome on top in another attempt to keep this disaster from getting any worse. Four times a week, Doug Suttles gets a bird's-eye view of BP 's oil spill ...

    Mr. SUTTLES: You can see some sheen here. You see those streaks?

    THOMPSON: ...and the cleanup effort. The bill so far: $940 million and growing, along with the damage. Louisiana 's few beaches are being cleaned, but BP 's chief operating officer concedes the company must do much better in the oil-soaked marshes.

    Mr. SUTTLES: We're putting a lot more of the control, a lot more of the authority and a lot more of the people much closer to where the action is .

    THOMPSON: BP and Suttles are both under attack. He's received death threats, and today BP is being blasted for busing in cleanup workers just for yesterday's presidential visit to Grand Isle .

    Mr. SUTTLES: Of course, that's not to put on a show, that's to actually minimize the impact. So it's frustrating that people say those things.

    THOMPSON: Now 40 days old, some experts say there are faster ways to clean up the spill.

    Mr. JOHN HOFMEISTER (Former Shell Oil President): I think we should be seriously considered some kind of a tank formation with three, four, five supertankers. Get this oil off the surface.

    THOMPSON: Suttles says he's looked at that idea.

    Mr. SUTTLES: If the oil would come up in one spot, that technique would probably be quite effective. But it doesn't come up in one spot, it's over a wide area. So that's why we end up using, you know, at any given time, hundreds of vessels out there to try to capture it.

    THOMPSON: As this drags on, BP 's credibility problems grow. After having vastly underestimated the size of the spill and the almost daily resetting of the top kill timeline this week, many here wonder if BP is telling the truth about anything.

    Mr. SUTTLES: This is not our thing we do. We're not used to having the world focused on what we do, and it's not what we're good at, and I'll admit that.

    THOMPSON: Can you tell me you are telling the truth?

    Mr. SUTTLES: We are. You know, I'm personally involved in every piece of this operation, and I can tell you that we're trying to be as open and as transparent as we -- as we can be.

    THOMPSON: As for the efforts out at sea, Suttles says BP will continue its burning and skimming operations and it will also continue using that controversial dispersant. But Suttle points out, at least from the air, it is using a quarter of the dispersant it once did. Lester :

    HOLT: Anne Thompson tonight, thank you.

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