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Setbacks on cleanup swell frustration with BP

Judge defiant on drill ban; oil reaches Fla.

Workers opposed to the moratorium on deep-water drilling took part in a rally at Gulf Island Fabrication in Houma, La., yesterday. A federal judge who struck down the ban has refused to grant the government a stay while it appeals. Workers opposed to the moratorium on deep-water drilling took part in a rally at Gulf Island Fabrication in Houma, La., yesterday. A federal judge who struck down the ban has refused to grant the government a stay while it appeals. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
By Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press / June 25, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — Earlier this month, BP boldly predicted the oil gushing from the bottom of the sea would be reduced to a “relative trickle’’ within days, and President Obama told the nation last week that as much as 90 percent would soon be captured. But those goals seemed wildly optimistic yesterday after yet another setback a mile underwater.

A deep-sea robot bumped into the cap collecting oil from the well, forcing a temporary halt Wednesday to the company’s best effort yet to contain the leak. The cap was back in place yesterday, but frustration and skepticism were running high along the Gulf Coast.

BP’s pronouncements have “absolutely no credibility,’’ said Jefferson Parish Councilman John Young. The latest problem shows “they really are not up to the task and we have more bad news than we have good news.’’

Even before the latest setback, the government’s worst-case estimates suggested the cap and other equipment were capturing less than half of the oil leaking from the sea floor. And in recent days, the “spillcam’’ video continued to show gas and oil billowing from the blown-out well.

BP officials said they sympathized, and laid out in new detail the company’s plans to have additional ships in place that can capture even more oil.

“For BP, our intent is to restore the gulf the way it was before it happened,’’ BP PLC managing director Bob Dudley, who has taken over the company’s spill operations, said in Washington.

In other developments:

■ The spill began arriving in sheets of oil on the Florida coast, forcing the closing of Pensacola Beach near the Alabama line, the first Florida beach to close since the accident more than nine weeks ago, and fouled some of Mississippi’s most fertile coastal waters.

■ The federal judge who struck down the Obama administration’s six-month ban on deep-water drilling in the gulf refused to stay his ruling while the government appeals.

■ Environmental groups asked the court to release additional information about US District Judge Martin Feldman’s holdings in oil-related stocks.

At nearly every important juncture since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers, the government’s and BP’s estimates on the size of the spill, its effect on wildlife, and the time frame for containing it have spectacularly missed the mark.

On June 8, BP chief operating office Doug Suttles said the spill should be reduced to a “relative trickle’’ in less than a week.

BP later said it would take more time for the spill to reach a trickle.

Obama used the 90 percent figure last week in his first address from the Oval Office and after meeting with BP officials at the White House, saying the company had informed him that was how much of the oil could be kept out of the water within weeks.

“It just doesn’t look like that’s in the cards,’’ said Ed Overton, a retired professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University. “We’re not even close to that, and the word today is that they were capturing less than the day before. I was hoping the president knew something that the rest of us didn’t know. I mean, he was talking to the big shots.’’

BP said yesterday that it was gradually ramping back up to capture about 700,000 gallons a day with the cap, and burning off an additional 438,000 a day using an incinerator ship.

Worst-case government estimates are that about 2.5 million gallons are leaking from the well, though no one knows for sure.

By mid- to late July, the company hopes to have the capacity to capture up to 3.3 million gallons a day, if that much is flowing, BP spokesman John Curry said.

It cannot all be done immediately, Curry said, because the logistics of positioning four giant ships capable of collecting oil and connecting them with the sea floor are complicated. “There’s a limit to the number of ships in the world that do these type of things,’’ he said.

None of those efforts is expected to stop the leak entirely. The soonest that would happen is late August, which is when BP says relief wells being drilled through thousands of feet of rock beneath the seabed will reach the gusher.

Dudley said the relief well is progressing very well and that BP knows how to do that work.

“I’m confident by the end of August we’ll have that well killed,’’ he said.

Then he knocked on a conference table for good luck.

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