NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – Robotic
submarines are on Monday racing to stop oil from a sunken rig streaming
into the Gulf of Mexico, as BP warned that sealing the seabed leaks
could take three months if the operation fails.
energy giant -- which leases the stricken Deepwater Horizon
semi-submersible platform -- is desperately trying to prevent a massive
slick from growing and spreading to Louisiana's ecologically fragile
Satellite images on Sunday showed the slick had spread
by 50 percent in a day to cover an area of 600 square miles (1,550
square kilometers), although officials said almost all the oil was just
a thin veneer on the sea's surface.
BP has dispatched a
flotilla of skimming vessels to mop up oil from the rig, which sank on
Thursday while still ablaze, almost two days after a massive explosion
that left 11 workers missing and presumed dead.
operations, though, are being conducted by four underwater vehicles
almost a mile below on the seabed, where the riser that connects the
wellhead to the rig is spewing out an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil a
"Those operations are ongoing. I know they have been
working overnight but I don't know the progress that has been made,"
Bill Salvin, a spokesman at the joint information center set up to deal
with the spill, told AFP.
Experts say that using the robotic
vehicles to activate the blowout preventer -- a giant 450-tonne,
50-foot high machine near the wellhead that could effectively cap the
well -- is a longshot.
"It has not been done before, but we
have the world's best experts working to make it happen," admitted BP
executive Doug Suttles.
Richard Metcalf, a mechanical engineer
at the pro-industry Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association told AFP:
"Essentially, they're trying to put a cork in a bottle of champagne."
that the effort could well fail, BP is also preparing to drill relief
wells that would permanently shut off the oil flow by injecting a
special sealant into the wellhead -- but this would take much longer.
is possible that it could take two to three months for a relief well to
be drilled," said Salvin, adding that a "worst case scenario" could see
them "lose total control of the well" and oil leaking at a much quicker
The spokesman told AFP that it should be clear by Tuesday
morning if the remotely-operated submarines would be able to activate
the blowout preventer and stop the two leaks in the riser.
US coast guard, which conducted two overflights of the slick on
Saturday and Sunday to assess the extent of the pollution, have
described it as a "very serious spill."
Five aircraft and 32
spill response vessels -- skimmers, tugs, barges and recovery boats --
have been trying to mop up the slick but efforts were hampered over the
weekend by winds and high seas.
So far, the slick is not
threatening the coast of Louisiana, more than 40 miles away, where it
could endanger ecologically fragile wetlands that are a paradise for
rare waterfowl and other wildlife.
"In the trajectory analysis
we don't see any impact to any shoreline within the next three days,"
Charlie Henry, scientific support coordinator of the US government's
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told
journalists on Sunday.
Environmentalists have sounded the alarm
about the threat to Louisiana and experts say the spill has the
potential to be the worst seen in the United States since the 1989
Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster.
That spill, considered one of
the worst-ever man-made disasters, poured nearly 11 million gallons of
crude into Alaska's Prince William Sound, devastating some 750 miles of
its once pristine shores.
Meanwhile, there was still no news of
11 Deepwater Horizon crew members missing since Tuesday's spectacular
blast which shot balls of flame into the night sky.
The US coast guard aborted a massive air and sea search for the missing workers on Friday.
Investigations are ongoing into the cause of the accident.
officials have said they believe it was a blowout, caused when pressure
control systems fail and oil shoots uncontrolled to the surface.