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May 31, 2010 5:49 PM by Letitia Walker

Monday: Oil Clean-Up Update

 NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The best hope for stopping the flow of oil

from the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has

been compared to hitting a target the size of a dinner plate more

than two miles into the earth, and is anything but a sure bet on

the first attempt.

      Bid after bid has failed to staunch what has already become the

nation's worst-ever spill, and BP PLC is readying another attempt

as early as Wednesday to capture the oil, this one a cut-and-cap

process.

      But the best-case scenario of sealing the leak is two relief

wells being drilled diagonally into the gushing well - tricky

business that won't be ready until August.

      "The probability of them hitting it on the very first shot is

virtually nil," said David Rensink, incoming president of the

American Association of Petroleum Geologists, who spent most of his

39 years in the oil industry in offshore exploration. "If they get

it on the first three or four shots they'd be very lucky."

      For the bid to succeed, the bore hole must precisely intersect

the damaged well. If it misses, BP will have to back up its drill,

plug the hole it just created, and try again.

      The trial-and-error process could take weeks, but it will

eventually work, scientists and BP said. Then engineers will then

pump mud and cement through pipes to ultimately seal the well.

      As the drilling reaches deeper into the earth, the process is

slowed by building pressure and the increasing distance that well

casings must travel before they can be set in place.

      Still, the three months it could take to finish the relief wells

- the first of which started May 2 - is quicker than a typical deep

well, which can take four months or longer, said Tad Patzek, chair

of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the

University of Texas-Austin. BP already has a good picture of the

different layers of sand and rock its drill bits will meet because

of the work it did on the blown-out well.

      On the slim chance the relief well doesn't work, scientists

weren't sure exactly how much - or how long - the oil would flow.

The gusher would continue until the well bore hole collapsed or

pressure in the reservoir dropped to a point where oil was no

longer pushed to the surface, Patzak said.

      "I don't admit the possibility of it not working," he said.

      A third well could be drilled if the first two fail.

      "We don't know how much oil is down there, and hopefully we'll

never know when the relief wells work," BP spokesman John Curry

said.

      The company was starting to collect and analyze data on how much

oil might be in the reservoir when the rig exploded April 20, he

said.

      BP's uncertainty statement is reasonable, given they only had

drilled one well, according to Doug Rader, an ocean scientist with

the Environmental Defense Fund.

      Two relief wells stopped the world's worst peacetime spill, from

a Mexican rig called Ixtoc 1 that eventually dumped 140 million

gallons off the Yucatan Peninsula. That took nearly 10 months

beginning in the summer of 1979. Drilling technology has vastly

improved since then, however.

      So far, the Gulf oil spill has leaked between 19.7 million and

43 million gallons, according to government estimates.

      In the meantime, BP is turning to another risky procedure

federal officials acknowledge will likely, at least temporarily,

cause 20 percent more oil - at least 100,000 gallons a day - to add

to the gusher.

      Using robot submarines, BP plans to cut away the riser pipe this

week and place a cap-like containment valve over the blowout

preventer. The company hopes it will capture the majority of the

oil, sending it to the surface.

      "If you've got to cut that riser, that's risky. You could take

a bad situation and make it worse," said Ed Overton, a Louisiana

State University professor of environmental sciences.

      The latest attempt to capture the well comes after BP failed to

plug the leak Saturday with it's top kill, which shot mud and

pieces of rubber into the well but couldn't beat back the pressure

of oil.

      The location of the spill couldn't be worse.

      To the south lies an essential spawning ground for imperiled

Atlantic bluefin tuna and sperm whales. To the east and west, coral

reefs and the coastal fisheries of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi

and Texas. And to the north, Louisiana's coastal marshes.

      More than 125 miles of Louisiana coastline already have been hit

with oil. "It's just killing us by degrees," said Tulane

University ecologist Tom Sherry.

      It's an area that historically has been something of a

superhighway for hurricanes, too.

      If a major storm rolls in, the relief well operations would have

to be suspended and then re-started, adding more time to the

process. Plugging the Ixtoc was also hampered by hurricane season,

which begins Tuesday and is predicted to be very active.

      Three of the worst storms ever to hit the Gulf coast - Betsy in

1965, Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005 - all passed over the

leak site.

      On the Gulf coast beaches, tropical weather was far from some

tourists' minds.

      On Biloxi beach, Paul Dawa and his friend Ezekial Momgeri sipped

Coronas after a night gambling at the Hard Rock Casino. Both men,

originally from Kenya, drove from Memphis, Tenn., and were chased

off the beach by a storm, not oil.

      "We talked about it and we decided to come down and see for

ourselves" whether there was oil, Momgeri said. "There's no oil

here."

      Though some tar balls have been found on Mississippi and Alabama

barrier islands, oil from the spill has not significantly fouled

the shores.

      Still, the perception that it has soiled white sands and fishing

areas threatens to cripple the tourist economy, said Linda Hornsby,

executive director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association

      "It's not here. It may never be here. It's costing a lot of

money to counter that perception," Hornsby said. "First it was

cancelations, but that evolved to a decrease in calls and there's

no way to measure that."

      Yet there was fear the oil would eventually hit the other Gulf

coast states. Hentzel Yucles, of Gulfport, Miss., hung out on the

beach with his wife and sons.

      "Katrina was bad. I know this is a different type of situation,

but it's going to affect everybody," he said.

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