The U.S. government's point man on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill said Wednesday that BP's blown-out well is expected to be permanently sealed and declared dead by Sunday, nearly five months after a rig explosion set off the disaster.
National Incident Commander Thad Allen told reporters that a relief well is expected to intersect with the blown out well within 24 hours. He said mud and cement will then be pumped in, which is expected to seal the blown-out well within four days.
"We are within a 96-hour window of killing the well," Allen said.
The April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from the undersea well.
Appearing with Allen, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said monitoring continues of oil that remains in the Gulf. Lubchenco stood by earlier government estimates that 50 percent of the oil that spilled is gone from the water system.
Scientists said earlier this week that they had found thick patches of oil coating the sea floor, raising questions about government conclusions that much of the oil from the spill was gone. Testing is underway this week for chemical fingerprints that would conclusively link that oil to the BP spill.
Still, Allen and Lubchenco sought to reassure hesitant diners from outside the region that Gulf seafood is safe to eat during their appearance outside the Louisiana Fish House. Allen noted that he has eaten Gulf seafood every day for the last several days.
"In short, folks want to know if it is safe to eat, swim and fish, and that is the kind of information we are committed to identifying answers to those questions." Lubchenco said.
Gulf shrimpers are currently only producing 20 percent of their normal production for this time of year — because demand is down sharply and because supply is not where it should be in part due to the fact that some shrimpers are wary of taking on the expense of fishing if they can't sell their catch, according to Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board.
Allen also said he plans to step down as incident commander on Oct. 1 — the same day BP PLC installs American Bob Dudley as its new chief executive to replace Tony Hayward. Allen will be replaced by Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft. The move is not a surprise. Allen had said previously that he would transition out of his current rule by late September or early October.
British lawmakers question Hayward
In London, meanwhile, Hayward testified before British lawmakers about the disaster.
Hayward defended BP's safety record and said the Gulf of Mexico oil spill should not lead to a universal ban on deepwater drilling.
The head of the British committee eschewed the confrontational tone adopted by U.S. legislators months ago, but gently pressed Hayward and BP's head of safety Mark Bly — author of the company's internal report into the spill — for specifics on the mistakes that contributed to the accident.
Committee chair Tim Yeo said that "three years ago, you were quoted as saying you were going to focus ... laser-like on safety.
"On your watch as chief executive, in that three years, now we've had the biggest ever oil spill in U.S. waters," said Yeo, a Conservative lawmaker.
Hayward insisted that BP's safety record is "better than the industry average" and said no corners had been cut in the interest of saving money.
Hayward predicted the industry at large would improve safety as a result of the spill.
He said the oil industry will "significantly enhance the testing protocols of blowout preventers" following the explosion at the Macondo well on April 20.
But he said the response to the accident should not be "calls for universal bans on deepwater drilling."
"No single factor caused the accident, and multiple parties including BP, Haliburton and Transocean were involved," said Hayward, who appeared relaxed and spoke confidently.
Hayward said inquiries would continue to scrutinize the decisions that contributed to the Gulf spill, which he said he deeply regretted.
"There is much still to learn about the Deepwater Horizon accident," he said.
U.S. testimony was confrontational
Hayward endured an onslaught of criticism when he appeared before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee in June. He insisted he had little knowledge of decisions that contributed to the explosion at the Macondo well.
Hayward repeatedly told the U.S. committee he could not provide detailed explanations. "I'm not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision-making process," he said.
Hayward was repeatedly asked whether he believed the response in the U.S. toward BP had been unfair, but declined to criticize the reaction from the White House or the American public.
"There was an enormous amount of emotion and anger and it was very understandable," Hayward said.
"The reaction was entirely understandable, and I would like to make clear that BP had an entirely constructive relationship with the U.S. government," he told the panel.
Yeo's parliamentary panel is considering whether additional regulation is needed in Britain, and whether the U.K. government was right not to follow President Barack Obama's lead in imposing a moratorium on new deep water drilling.
Both Transocean and BP PLC, which operated the Deepwater Horizon platform mining the Macondo well, have operations in the North Sea off the coast of the U.K., where there are 24 drilling rigs and 280 oil and gas installations.
Britain's government has increased the number of rig inspectors there following the Gulf disaster, but environmentalists — noting a government agency report last month that revealed a spike in accidental leaks and serious injuries to workers on offshore platforms — say a moratorium on drilling is needed.
The Financial Times reported Wednesday that all but one of BP's North Sea installations examined by government inspectors last year were cited for failure to comply with emergency regulations on oil spills. Citing inspection records obtained under Britain's Freedom of Information Act, it revealed BP had not complied with rules on training for offshore operators and had failed to conduct adequate oil spill exercises.
The British committee has previously taken evidence from Transocean. It will issue a series of recommendations on safety, likely before the end of the year, but has no powers to compel Britain's Conservative-led government to accept its findings.