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Jun 2, 2010 7:27 AM by Sharlee Barriere

Oil Closes in on Florida as BP Tries Risky Cap Move

PORT FOURCHON, La. (AP) - As submersible robots made another
risky attempt to control the underwater Gulf oil gusher, the crude
on the surface spread, closing in on Florida. BP's stock plummeted
and took much of the market down with it, and the federal
government announced criminal and civil investigations into the
spill.
The stakes couldn't be higher.
After six weeks of failures to block the well or divert the oil,
the latest mission involved using a set of tools akin to an
oversized deli slicer and garden shears to break away the broken
riser pipe so engineers can then position a cap over the well's
opening.
But it's a big gamble: Even if it succeeds, it will temporarily
increase the flow of an already massive leak by 20 percent - at
least 100,000 gallons more a day. That's on top of the estimated
500,000 to 1 million gallons gushing out already.
In Florida, officials confirmed an oil sheen about nine miles
from the famous white sands of Pensacola beach. Crews shored up
miles of boom and prepared for the mess to make landfall as early
as Wednesday.
"It's inevitable that we will see it on the beaches," said
Keith Wilkins, deputy chief of neighborhood and community services
for Escambia County.
Florida would be the fourth state hit. Crude has already been
reported along barrier islands in Alabama and Mississippi, and it
has impacted some 125 miles of Louisiana coastline.
More federal fishing waters were closed, too, another setback
for one of the region's most important industries. More than
one-third of federal waters were off-limits for fishing, along with
hundreds of square miles of state waters.
Fisherman Hong Le, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam, had
rebuilt his home and business after Hurricane Katrina wiped him
out. Now he's facing a similiar situation.
"I'm going to be bankrupt very soon," Le, 53, said as he
attended a meeting for fishermen hoping for help. "Everything is
financed, how can I pay? No fishing, no welding. I weld on
commercial fishing boats and they aren't going out now, so nothing
breaks."
Le, like other of the fishermen, received $5,000 from BP PLC,
but it was quickly gone.
"I call that 'Shut your mouth money,"' said Murray Volk, 46,
of Empire, who's been fishing for nearly 30 years. "That won't pay
the insurance on my boat and house. They say there'll be more
later, but do you think the electric company will wait for that?"
BP may have bigger problems, though.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited the Gulf on Tuesday to
survey the fragile coastline and meet with state and federal
prosecutors, would not say who might be targeted in the probes into
the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
"We will closely examine the actions of those involved in the
spill. If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be
extremely forceful in our response," Holder said in New Orleans.
The federal government also ramped up its response to the spill
with President Barack Obama ordering the co-chairmen of an
independent commission investigating the spill to thoroughly
examine the disaster, "to follow the facts wherever they lead,
without fear or favor."
The president said that if laws are insufficient, they'll be
changed. He said that if government oversight wasn't tough enough,
that will change, too.
BP's stock nose-dived on Tuesday, losing nearly 15 percent of
its value on the first trading day since the previous best option -
the so-called top kill - failed and was aborted at the government's
direction. It dipped steeply with Holder's late-afternoon
announcement, which also sent other energy stocks tumbling,
ultimately causing the Dow Jones industrial average to tumble 112.
If BP's new effort to contain the leak fails, the procedure will
have made the biggest oil spill in U.S. history even worse.
"It is an engineer's nightmare," said Ed Overton, a Louisiana
State University professor of environmental sciences. "They're
trying to fit a 21-inch cap over a 20-inch pipe a mile away. That's
just horrendously hard to do. It's not like you and I standing on
the ground pushing - they're using little robots to do this."
Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, eventually
collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico, an estimated 20 million to 40
million gallons of oil has spewed, eclipsing the 11 million that
leaked from the Exxon Valdez disaster.
BP PLC's Doug Suttles said that although there's no guarantee
the company's latest cut-and-cap effort to close off the leak will
work, he remained hopeful, but wouldn't guarantee success.
Engineers have put underwater robots and equipment in place this
week after a bold attempt to plug the well by force-feeding it
heavy mud and cement - called a "top kill" - was aborted over the
weekend. Crews pumped thousands of gallons of the mud into the well
but were unable to overcome the pressure of the oil.
The company said if the small dome is successful it could
capture and siphon a majority of the gushing oil to the surface.
But the cut and cap will not halt the oil flow, just capture some
of it and funnel it to vessels waiting at the surface.
The British oil giant has tried and failed repeatedly to halt
the flow of the oil, and this attempt like others has never been
tried before a mile beneath the ocean. Experts warned it could be
even riskier than the others because slicing open the 20-inch riser
could unleash more oil if there was a kink in the pipe that
restricted some of the flow.
Eric Smith, an associate director of the Tulane Energy
Institute, likened the procedure to trying to place a tiny cap on a
fire hydrant that's blowing straight up.
"Will they have enough weight to overcome the force of the
flow?" he said. "It could create a lot of turbulence, but I do
think they'll have enough weight."
But BP's best chance to actually plug the leak rests with a pair
of relief wells but those won't likely be completed until August.
The company has carefully prepared the next phase, knowing that
another failure could mean millions more gallons spew into the
ocean and lead to even more public pressure. And they say they have
learned valuable lessons from the failure of a bigger version of
the containment cap last month that was clogged with icelike slush.

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