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Today's Top News
BP Oil Spill May Not Be Capped Until Christmas, Expert Warns
'Everyone should be prepared for worst-case scenario', says the head of oil consultancy group
One of the world's leading authorities on oil well management has warned it could take until Christmas to cap the Gulf of Mexico spill that is devastating the southern coast of America – and BP's reputation.
Nansen Saleri, a Gulf drilling expert, said he hoped BP would meet its August timetable for capping the blown-out well, but made it clear success was not certain.
"I know it is a frightening assessment but everyone should be prepared for a worst-case scenario, and that could mean a Christmas timeframe," said Saleri, chief executive of the consultancy group Quantum Reservoir Impact. "The probable outcome is much better but the technological challenges … are enormous."
The futures of BP and of wildlife around the Gulf of Mexico are largely dependent on the rapid success of two "relief" wells that are being drilled in an attempt to halt anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil a day that is flowing out of the stricken Macondo subsea hole.
Saleri, who dealt personally with four blowouts during a career with Saudi Aramco and Chevron, said the BP fire and spill was the worst he had seen. He believes it may cause more damage than the Ixtoc I blowout 30 years ago, which is regarded as the most damaging of its kind.
BP faced renewed pressure to do more to contain the Gulf of Mexico spill as the US and Britain played down diplomatic tensions over the crisis.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said relations between the US and UK were "outstanding at every level". He said it was up to BP – under pressure in the US to suspend its dividend to help pay for damage – to decide on its payout to shareholders. David Cameron and Barack Obama talked at the weekend, when Cameron expressed his sadness at the "human and environmental catastrophe".
Tony Hayward, the BP chief executive, will be grilled about the disaster in the US on Thursday when he appears before a special Senate hearing. On Wednesday, Hayward and the BP chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, will meet the president at the White House to explain BP's response.
According to reports, Obama will tell the pair he wants BP to establish a special account to meet damage claims by individuals and businesses hurt by the spill.
The prospect of a lengthy timescale to cap the well reinforces the views of Carlos Morales, the head of exploration at Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex). The company was the operator of the Ixtoc I well in 1979, when 3.3m gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf. It took nearly 10 months to bring the blowout under control.
Morales is now sharing technical information with BP in an attempt to help it block the Macondo leak. He has warned it could take "four to five months" for a relief well to cap the spill.
Hurricanes also pose a problem. The hurricane season in the Gulf began this month, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted it will be "active to very active", with up to 23 named storms and up to 14 hurricanes on the way.
Saleri said a bad storm could "really complicate" the environmental impact of spilled oil and delay relief drilling by two weeks every time a hurricane strikes.
BP is also aware that the relief wells could be as unstable as the original one. Experts admit no one can rule out another blowout such as the one that sent the original rig, Horizon Explorer, to the bottom of the ocean.
The British company has warned in a regulatory filing that a blowout on one of the relief wells could release a further 240,000 barrels of oil a day, although Hayward has since discounted the chances of this. "The relief wells ultimately will be successful," he said.