Has the ‘Top Kill’ Attempt Stopped the Gulf Oil Leak? Maybe

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Lee Celano / Reuters

A boat passes through heavily oiled marsh near Pass a Loutre, Louisiana, May 20, 2010.

Updated on May 27, 2010 at 5:30 p.m. ET

After five weeks of unrelenting bad news from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, neither BP nor the Coast Guard command is likely to announce that they’ve at last stopped the gusher until they’re absolutely, positively, hands-down sure. This morning, they’re falling over themselves to deny a Los Angeles Times report that U.S. Coast Guard commander Thad Allen declared that the top-kill effort to plug the leak has succeeded.

“Engineers have stopped the flow of oil and gas,” said an article on latimes.com. Nuh-uh answered the Coast Guard. “At the moment we can’t confirm or deny anything,” a spokeswoman said.

Allen himself didn’t weigh in until after 5 p.m. today and he too dismissed the Times. “There was a reporter in the room writing headlines,” he said, who overheard him say that the mud was suppressing the hydrocarbon — essentially the oil and gas — from rising up the broken pipe. All that meant, however, was that the downward pressure of the incoming material was blocking the outward pressure of the leak. If you shut the mud off, the leak would resume. “I want to be perfectly clear,” Allen stressed, “While I said the hydrocarbons have been stopped…that does not mean the exercise is over.”

Still, more than a day after engineers began pumping 50,000 barrels (or 2 million lbs.) of drilling mud into the broken pipe, things are looking promising. The company’s managing director Robert Dudley told Reuters the attempt was “moving the way we want it to.”

Indeed it is. A catastrophic failure of the top kill procedure would have shown up very early — perhaps within minutes of when engineers began pumping the “mud” (a synthetic substance that is not actually mud at all) into the crippled well at 2 PM yesterday. The pressure of the incoming slurry — forced down by a 30,000 horsepower pump on the surface — could have ruptured the crippled blowout preventer almost immediately. The fact that it didn’t is a very good sign. So too is the general belief that the dirty plumes rising from the ocean floor and visible on live feeds seemingly everywhere on the Web are no longer oil hemorrhaging from below but merely the mud itself coming from the cracks in the pipes. If that’s so, it means that the fluid, which weighs twice as much as water, is succeeding in holding down the oil and choking off the leak. The next step will be to pump down cement and seal the well permanently.

Even if BP and the Coast Guard can indeed declare victory sometime later today, no one will be in the mood for high-fiving or crowing. Just this morning, the government announced that teams of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and elsewhere have conducted their own analyses of the rate at which the oil has been leaking and put it at a shocking 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day. That nearly quadruples BP’s rosier claim of 5,000 barrels. The new figure translates to at least 17 million gallons, blowing past the 11 million spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 — the previous gold standard of awfulness.

No matter how successful the top kill may be, there’s no calling back so huge a mess. It will be left to the coastal residents to live with it for months and years to come — all the more reason that any celebration to come today will be a decidedly quiet one.

— With Jeffrey Kluger