- Barack Obama - environment - Oil spill
BP cuts off leaking oil pipe in latest bid to stem leak
BP has succeeded in cutting off a fractured oil pipe in its latest bid to cap the leak, after a robotic saw got stuck in an earlier attempt. The six week-old Gulf of Mexico oil spill is now heading towards the beaches of Florida.
AFP - BP on Thursday successfully cut off a fractured oil pipe using giant shears, pressing ahead with its latest bid to seal the leak as President Barack Obama announced a third trip to the region.
After a diamond-blade saw got stuck in the pipe lying a mile down on the sea bed, the British energy giant was forced to use rougher means to slice it off.
"The other saw that we attempted to use was not successful in getting the internal drill pipe so we replaced it with the shears, which don't have as clean a cut, but we do have a cut now," Admiral Thad Allen told reporters.
Allen, who is overseeing the US government's response to the six-week spill, hailed the cutting of the pipe as a "significant step forward."
The challenge now would be to place a containment cap securely over the cut and stop gallons of oil spewing daily into the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
BP has battled unsuccessfully to cap or contain the disastrous leak, now the worst in US history, since an April 20 explosion tore through a BP-leased rig just off the Louisiana coast.
Workers are using robotic submarines working in cold waters a mile down (1,600 meters) on the sea bed to stem the flow of oil, which was closing in on Florida beaches Thursday after new areas were closed to fishing.
Allen said a top hat containment device would be lowered now that the pipe was shorn off.
"We'll have to see as we put the containment cap on exactly how effective it is," he told journalists.
The US government has estimated the flow of oil before the riser was cut away at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day -- meaning at least 20 million gallons have already poured into the Gulf.
But BP's chief operating officer Doug Suttles has acknowledged that until the cap is in place the flow of oil would likely increase by as much as 20 percent.
Allen also said that nearly one million gallons of dispersants have been used to break up oil in the Gulf of Mexico spill.
"We're approaching the million gallon mark and it's a milestone and there are concerns about that and we will continue to work the dispersants very, very closely."
Many environmentalists have voiced concern over the unprecedented use of so much dispersant, warning its long-term effect on marine and wildlife is unknown.
Allen stressed BP's operation to drill two relief wells -- seen as the only way to permanently cap the failed wellhead -- was on target to be completed in mid-August.
Amid rising political fallout from the disaster, the White House said Obama would make a third trip to the region on Friday to survey efforts to combat and clean up the spill.
BP, whose stock plunged in value this week, was downgraded Thursday by ratings agency Fitch from "AA+" to "AA" because of the risks from the oil spill, which has cost the company a billion dollars so far.
The latest official projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show the slick is now some seven miles (11 kilometers) off Florida's shores.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist warned Wednesday forecasters were "projecting weathered oil from the leading edge could impact the Florida Panhandle as early as this week, possibly in a day or two."
Florida would be the fourth state hit by the oil since the explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon rig killing 11 workers.
More than 125 miles (200 kilometers) of Louisiana coast have been contaminated, triggering long-term fears for the region's already vulnerable and endangered wildlife.
A University of Miami study meanwhile showed the oil slick's surface area now stretches across 9,435 square miles (24,435 square kilometers) of the Gulf -- triple the size of satellite imagery from May 1.
Experts warn also the majority of the oil is contained in vast underwater plumes that cannot be measured by analyzing from above.
US officials closed more than a third of Gulf of Mexico waters, extending a fishing ban to 88,502 square miles (229,219 square kilometers) -- about 37 percent of the Gulf's federal waters.
The massive spill has frayed the nerves of local residents, who wonder if their lives will ever return to normal.
"Everybody is so stressed here. We're just sitting here waiting and they're not telling us anything because they don't know. I had four people who came yesterday crying," said Grand Isle restaurant owner Annette Rigaud.