BP Plc engineers will search for a solution Sunday after suffering a setback in an attempt to contain oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico with a huge metal dome, dashing hopes for a quick, temporary solution to a growing environmental disaster.
The company was forced to move the four-story containment dome off to the side on the sea floor after a buildup of crystallized gas forced it to suspend the effort. Covering the leak with the structure was seen as the best short-term way to stem the flow from a ruptured oil well.
BP expects to take up to two days plotting its next move, Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s failed yet. What I would say is what we attempted to do last night didn’t work because these hydrates plugged up the top of the dome,” Suttles said.
“What we’re currently doing, and I suspect it will probably take the next 48 hours or so, is saying, ‘Is there a way to overcome this problem?”‘
The problem is gas hydrates, essentially slushy methane gas that would block the oil from being siphoned out the top of the box. As BP tries to resolve it, oil keeps flowing unchecked into the Gulf in what could be the worst U.S. oil spill ever.
The company, under pressure from the Obama administration to limit the damage to the Gulf and coastlines of four states, expected hydrates, but not the volumes encountered after a crew lowered the dome nearly a mileto the sea floor.
Possible solutions may involve heating the area or adding methanol to break up the hydrates, Suttles said.
Officials had already warned there was no guarantee the technology would work at such water depth. It hopes to attach a pipe to the 98-ton dome to pump oil to a tanker, with the aim of capturing about 85 percent of the leaking crude.
Oil has been gushing into the Gulf at a rate estimated at a minimum of 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day since the well ruptured last month.
The spill threatens an economic and ecological disaster hitting beaches, wildlife refuges and fishing in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. It has forced President Barack Obama to rethink plans to open more waters to drilling.
On Dauphin Island, Alabama, a barrier island and beach resort full of weekend swimmers and beachcombers, sunbathers found tar balls and tar beads washing up Saturday along a half-mile stretch of the white-sand beach and alerted media outlets and authorities.
A team of dozens of BP-contracted workers in rubber boots and gloves was dispatched to the scene to lay down special clusters of oil-absorbing synthetic fibers called pom-poms, erect storm fencing along the beach and collect samples of the tar and water for testing. The beach remained open.
Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said he suspected they came from the leaking well, but only testing would confirm it.
A spokesman for the spill response Unified Command in Mobile said tar washing ashore was a “common occurrence” along Alabama beaches, but some local residents disagreed.
“I have never seen this and I am here once a week every summer. This is the first time I have seen anything like this here,” said Molly Hunter, 34, of Mobile, holding up a chunk of tar about the size of an open hand.
“All we need is a hurricane to come through and blow it 2 miles inland. It would contaminate Mobile. It would be awful,” stevedore superintendent Adam Fornander said of the spill as his team loaded luggage Saturday for cruise ship passengers.
But he was sanguine about the possibility of the oil affecting the Port of Mobile, the United States’ ninth busiest harbor, where the Coast Guard, workers and National Guard have been laying a protective ring of booms.
The spill’s only major contact with the shoreline so far has been in the uninhabited Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana, mostly a wildlife reserve.
Suttles said BP may now try to plug up the damaged blowout preventer on the well or attach a new one on top of it.
It is also drilling a relief well to halt the leak — which began after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 crew members — but that could take three months.
In the initial blast, a natural gas cloud enveloped the rig and exploded just as visiting BP officials were celebrating seven accident-free years in the rig’s crew quarters, according to accounts by survivors of the blast.
According to transcripts of interviews obtained by Robert Bea, a University of California Berkeley engineering professor, a giant methane bubble rushed up the drill pipe and filled the air above the deck of the drilling platform with flammable gas, followed by a scalding flood of crude oil that spilled onto the drill deck and ignited.
About 270 boats deployed protective booms and used dispersants to break up the thick oil Saturday. Crews have laid more than 900,000 feet of boom, and spread 290,000 gallons of chemical dispersant.
Choppy waters in the Gulf prevented crews from controlled burning of the slick Saturday, but BP estimates at least 10,000 to 13,000 barrels have been eliminated using the technique, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.
In Bayou La Batre, the heart of Alabama’s seafood industry, the docks were largely quiet as thousands of shrimpers and seafood processors remained idled by fishing restrictions.
About 30 oyster-processing plants have run out of product and shut down, putting as many as 900 people out of work, said Wayne Eldridge, owner of J&W Marine Enterprises and an oyster plant operator himself.
“I’m screwed,” Eldridge said. “The biggest thing is I’ve got 35 people unemployed there.”
BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward has said a $75 million legal cap on the liabilities for economic damages under federal law, which some U.S. lawmakers now want to raise, would not be a limit and renewed promises to meet all “legitimate” claims.
BP suffered another blow Friday when ratings agency Standard & Poor’s lowered its outlook to negative from stable and indicated a ratings downgrade was likely.
(Additional reporting by Matt Bigg in New Orleans; Chris Baltimore in Houston; Tom Brown and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Steve Gorman in Dauphin Island, Alabama; Writing by Jeffrey Jones and John Whitesides; Editing by Todd Eastham and Peter Cooney)