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BP Prepares For New Effort To Halt Oil Leak

A shrimp boat motors through oil off the mouth of the Mississippi River, south of Venice, La. i

A shrimp boat motors through a ribbon of oil off the mouth of the Mississippi River, south of Venice, La., on Tuesday. Oil from last month's Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has started drifting ashore along the Louisiana coast. Charlie Riedel/AP hide caption

toggle caption Charlie Riedel/AP
A shrimp boat motors through oil off the mouth of the Mississippi River, south of Venice, La.

A shrimp boat motors through a ribbon of oil off the mouth of the Mississippi River, south of Venice, La., on Tuesday. Oil from last month's Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has started drifting ashore along the Louisiana coast.

Charlie Riedel/AP

BP said Wednesday that it hopes to begin shooting a mixture known as drilling mud into the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico early next week.

Engineers hope to start the procedure known as a "top kill" by Sunday. It could take several weeks to complete, but if it works it should stop the oil that's been gushing since the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20 and sank two days later.

"Let's all keep our fingers crossed. Let's all say our prayers," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry. "We absolutely hope top kills works. We're anxious to see that it does."

Engineers are testing pressure to make sure the busted blowout preventer on the seabed can handle heavy liquids plugging the leak.

"This is all being done at a depth of 5,000 feet, and it's never been done at these depths before," said Doug Suttles of BP PLC, the oil giant that was leasing the rig when it exploded.

Preparing For Impact

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said a small portion of the oil slick from the blown-out well has reached a powerful current that could take it to Florida. They said diluted oil could appear in isolated locations in Florida if persistent winds push the current toward it, but that oil could evaporate before reaching the coast.

Coast Guard officials said Wednesday that testing of tar balls found on the shorelines of the Florida Keys showed conclusively that they were not from the spill.

"It's a relief to note that the oil from the leak has not reached the Florida Keys," said Becky Herron, emergency management spokeswoman for Monroe County, Fla. "We're still preparing for the possibility and keeping a real close eye on what's happening with that oil leak so that if it does happen, we're ready for it."

Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, La., said he'd been assured by BP that black oil wouldn't reach Louisiana's fragile coastline. BP has been spraying chemical dispersants and corralling oil into booms for surface burns to prevent it from spreading.

Nungesser said he and Gov. Bobby Jindal have been pushing for the Army Corps of Engineers to grant a permit to allow them to dredge sand to create sand booms to fence off the marshes.

"Somebody's got to pull the trigger on this," he said. "I'm sick to my stomach right now, to go out there and see this, this is our worst fear. Nothing in that marsh where that oil is will survive. Louisiana's seafood industry depends on the marshes."

A new report by Moody's Investors Service said the multimillion-dollar oil cleanup effort will lead to a short-term financial boost in many Gulf Coast communities, but will ultimately have a negative impact.

Although BP has pledged to pay the cleanup costs and subsequent damage claims, the report warns, a decline in property values and property tax collection will likely mean a reduction in local services.

The news is particularly problematic in Florida, which doesn't have a state income tax and is reliant on tourism and sales taxes to help pay for government operations. The report also said that because the situation is ongoing, the full impact on the Gulf Coast states remains uncertain.

State Department officials said they've been holding "working-level talks" with their Cuban counterparts to discuss the potential threat posed to the island. Drifting crude from the massive spill is still far from the coral reefs and white sand beaches of Cuba's north coast, but shifting current patterns have some scientists worried it will head south toward the Florida Keys and catch Cuba unprepared.

Officials didn't say if the U.S. was prepared to offer material or technical support. Havana has its own plans to drill for oil in the Gulf. It has partnered with several foreign oil companies, one of which is expected to begin drilling later this year.

Northern Cuba has some of the healthiest coral reefs in the Caribbean. Marine scientist David Guggenheim, director of the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program, says the Gulf of Mexico is one large integrated ecosystem, and the oil spill is an international incident.

"Even if people don't care that much about our neighbor to the south they should, because we share many of the same species," he said. "There's growing evidence that fish that are born in Cuba come to live in the United States, and the sea turtles that nest on their beaches forage on ours and vice versa."

The 'Obama Oil Spill'

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee addressed the spill at a hearing Wednesday where leading Republicans, including John Mica of Florida, sought to pin blame on President Obama's administration. He cited Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's acknowledgment Tuesday that his agency could have more aggressively monitored the offshore drilling industry.

Outlining what he called the "Obama oil spill timeline," Mica said the administration failed to heed warnings about the need for more regulation, and issued "basically a carte blanche recipe for disaster" in approving drilling by the Deepwater Horizon, leased by oil giant BP PLC, and several dozen other wells.

He also said the spill could have been contained more quickly if the Coast Guard and other agencies had a better plan.

"This went on and on," he said. "I'm not going to point fingers at BP, the private industry, when it's government's responsibility to set the standards."

Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) took issue with the criticism, saying the drilling was approved early in the Obama administration, essentially continuing practices from President George W. Bush's administration, and that decisions were made by career officials.

"I think it's inflammatory to call it the Obama oil spill, and wrong," Oberstar said.

Leak Estimates Vary

Questions remained about just how much oil is spilling from the well.

New underwater video released by BP showed oil and gas erupting under pressure in large, dark clouds from its crippled blowout preventer on the ocean floor. The leaks resembled a geyser on land.

BP and the Coast Guard have said about 210,000 gallons of oil a day is gushing from the well, but professors who have watched the video and others say they believe the amount is much higher.

Steve Wereley, a mechanical engineer at Purdue University in Indiana, said he is sticking with his estimate that 3.9 million gallons a day is spewing from two leaks.

His estimate of the amount leaked to date, which he calls conservative and says has a margin of error of plus or minus 20 percent, is 126 million gallons — or more than 11 times the total leaked from the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. The official estimate is closer to 6 million gallons.

Another researcher, Timothy Crone of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said the latest video suggested a leak of at least 840,000 to 4.2 million gallons a day, though poor video quality made it difficult to come up with an accurate figure.

Government agencies have set up a task force to focus on how much oil is spilling, but BP America President Lamar McKay said under questioning at Wednesday's House hearing that officials still don't know which estimates are correct.

"It's theoretically possible" that the larger estimates are accurate, he said. "But I don't think anyone who's been working on this thinks it's that high."

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