Gulf oil spill: giant containment box towed to site

Efforts on Wednesday to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill centered on a towering metal box the size of a four-story building that engineering teams hope will corral the crude that continues to spout from the seafloor.

If the ambitious plan works, it could capture much of the 200,000 gallons of oil spewing daily from a well blowout and keep it from fattening the slick that threatens a coastline from Louisiana to Florida. The oil would be pumped nearly a mile up to a tanker ship.

“We are all hoping this containment system will work,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry. But she and BP officials cautioned that the operation had never been tried at such depths.

“What we’re undertaking is unprecedented,” BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said at a news conference. “We’re landing a very large, essentially, metal building.”

Resembling a squat rocket, the large box with a peaked top was carried slowly by barge to the spill site, a 12-hour journey expected to end around midnight Wednesday.

Over the next two days, it will be lowered by cable and maneuvered by robotic submarines that will try to place it atop the end of a fallen pipe on the seafloor at some distance from the well head.

Submarines managed to place a valve overnight Tuesday on one leak in the pipe, sealing it off but not stemming the overall flow of oil.

“It’s kind of like a garden hose with three leaks in it — you cut off this leak, but you still have two more,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Brandon Blackwell said.

The containment strategy is riddled with potential problems, mostly related to the depths involved, BP’s David Clarkson, who is managing the project, said at a news conference in Houston late Wednesday. “I am worried about every part of this,” he said.

The slurry of gas, water and oil expected to surge up the collection system will encounter a range of shifting pressures and temperatures, Clarkson said. These must be carefully managed at every step, and mishaps could leave pipes fatally blocked.

If it works, the natural buoyancy and temperature of the oil will carry it to the top of the box, into the pipes and up to the ship Enterprise, which can process and store 128,000 barrels of oil — about 5.4 million gallons.

The oil is mixed with natural gas, and at depths of more than 1,600 feet — where pressure is 2,300 pounds per square inch and the temperature is 42 degrees Fahrenheit — gas can mix with water and quickly produce what are known as “gas hydrates,” formations that look similar to frozen water.

These clear or white chunks are stable only under pressure. Inside a narrow pipe, they could quickly gum up the works.

Engineers have hundreds of feet of pipe to worry about as this cocktail of gas, oil and water moves rapidly upward from the seafloor. To control the temperature, BP will pump warm water down the space between the outer and inner pipes. The company also plans to inject methanol into the system to keep the water from binding with methane and other gases.

As much as 85% of the gush may be captured and stored aboard ship, where water would be extracted and released overboard. The remaining oil and gas would be transported to facilities on land and, once processed, the oil would be usable, BP officials said.

Meanwhile, cleanup teams on Wednesday took advantage of continuing good weather to skim and burn oil on the water’s surface.

By late Wednesday, oil was reported to have reached the Chandeluer Islands, a chain of uninhabited barrier islands southeast of Mississippi that are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar went inside the dome before it was loaded onto a barge. He also inspected the spill site, where the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead.

“This is a lesson that we need to learn from … so there is never another incident like this,” Salazar said at the news conference.

In the wake of the disaster, the Obama administration has postponed plans to expand drilling off the U.S. coast. But Salazar stressed that Americans remain “dependent on fossil fuels we have in this country.… There are risks inherent no matter what we do.”

Some Capitol Hill lawmakers are seeking to reinstitute a ban on new drilling off the West Coast and fast-track legislation to raise oil company liability for spills. Five congressional committees are gearing up for hearings.

“Enough is enough,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek) said in a letter seeking support for a bill introduced Wednesday that would permanently ban new energy exploration off California, Oregon and Washington. Nineteen fellow West Coast Democrats signed on as cosponsors. A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said that she also supports the measure, which could boost its prospects.

But Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman for Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called Garamendi’s bill “astute politics just now, but it won’t be a viable energy policy until cars run on something other than gasoline or everybody rides bicycles to work.”

New drilling had been prohibited in much of the nation’s coastal waters since the 1980s, largely in response to the devastating 1969 spill off Santa Barbara. Congress let the ban lapse in late 2008 as high gasoline prices became a hot political issue.

President Obama excluded the West Coast from his plans for new coastal drilling, but Garamendi said the ban should be written into law.

Legislators also have introduced bills to prevent new drilling proposed in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaska coast until the cause of the rig blowout is known.

Times staff writers Richard Fausset in Atlanta and Kimberly Geiger and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.