In a sign that BP may be on the verge of subduing its uncontrolled well, oil started flowing through a containment cap into a drill ship Friday, even as President Barack Obama chastised the company for launching a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign.
KENNER, La. — In a sign that BP may be on the verge of subduing its uncontrolled well, oil started flowing through a containment cap into a drill ship Friday, even as President Barack Obama chastised the company for launching a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign.
As engineers gradually ramped up the flow to the ship Enterprise, cautious BP officials said it would be a day or more before they could judge how successful the cap was at containing the leak that is feeding the largest spill in U.S. history.
But after a string of failures to contain the spewing well beneath the Gulf of Mexico, they sounded hopeful. "Things are going as planned," said BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells about 12 hours into the operation. "I'm quite encouraged."
With its stock price plummeting and its chief executive under attack, BP came in for another scolding Friday from Obama, who arrived in Louisiana on his third trip to the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon explosion April 20.
After meeting with local and Gulf state officials, he criticized the oil giant for mounting an expensive advertising campaign and considering dividend payments.
"My understanding is that BP had contracted for $50 million worth of TV advertising to manage their image in the course of this disaster," the president said in remarks to reporters. "In addition, there are reports that BP will be paying $10.5 billion in dividend payments this quarter."
"Now, I don't have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations," Obama added. "What I don't want to hear is that they're spending that kind of money on shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, (but) they're nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time."
BP has been expected to announce it would maintain dividend payments, but Obama's comments seemed aimed at changing the company's mind. Last year, it reported $27 billion in cash flow from operating activities. So far, it has spent more than $1 billion on the spill response.
In a conference call Friday with investors and analysts, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said the oil industry needs better safety technology. As an example he cited the "fail-safe blowout preventer, which this incident has clearly demonstrated is not fail-safe."
"The paradigm in which BP and the wide industry operates needs to change," Hayward said.
In addressing criticism, Hayward said it was "right that I should be the lightning rod."
Strong winds Friday were propelling pieces of the slick toward the Florida Panhandle and threatening the coasts of Alabama and Mississippi, which have so far largely escaped the tendrils of crude extending from the leak site.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the head of the federal disaster response, worried that as wind breaks up the massive spill into smaller slicks moving in different directions, it will strain cleanup resources and make the oil harder to fight.
Scientists with the University of South Florida said laboratory tests had confirmed that at least two extensive plumes detected underwater miles from the leak are from the spill, the Associated Press reported.
Hayward has said there was no evidence of large underwater plumes, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been reluctant to identify them without conclusive lab evidence.
In its start-up stage, the cap operation was capturing only a fraction of the estimated 500,000 to 800,000 gallons of oil that has been rushing into the Gulf daily for six weeks. Friday, dark clouds of escaping gas and oil continued to swirl around the cap, which was seated on the blown-out deep-sea well Thursday night.
But in a round of interviews, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said that when fully operational, the device "should capture the vast majority" of crude flowing from the damaged well.
BP has tried a variety of fixes only to see them stumble on the challenges of working at a depth of 5,000 feet, where the water pressure is crushing and only underwater robots can venture.
A big containment dome placed over the leak was quickly clogged by slushy gas hydrates. An elaborate "top kill" operation to plug the well with heavy drilling fluids was abandoned when it became apparent the upward force of the spouting oil was too great to overcome.
BP and federal officials then shifted to a containment strategy, involving the cap, while they work on the ultimate solution: two relief wells, now being drilled, that will be used to pump cement into the bottom of the damaged well, permanently sealing it.
Engineers were implementing the cap procedure slowly and carefully to avoid pressure and hydrate problems.
The cap was placed on the well with open vents to allow oil to continue to escape and to prevent the device from being lifted by the well's gushing oil.
The vents were being gradually closed through the day Friday to force more oil up the riser pipe leading to the ship, where gas is being flared and the oil processed.
Warm water shooting through an outer pipe will continuously bathe the riser to prevent the formation of gas hydrates. Substitute caps are sitting nearby on the seafloor in case something goes awry with the one now in use.
BP also plans to draw oil using hoses that pumped drilling mud during the top kill operation.