* BP says capturing some oil and gas from well
* Company cannot confirm reports of huge oil plumes
* Political pressure high for BP to pay costs of disaster
(Adds Markey quote, FT report on BP's safety record)
By Chris Baltimore and Steve Gorman
HOUSTON/GALLIANO, La., May 16 Energy giant BP
reported a limited success at containing the oil that is
gushing unabated into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday but a
skeptical U.S. government said it was "not a solution."
Reports of huge oil plumes in the Gulf, including one as
large as 10 miles (16 km) long, three miles (5 km) wide and 300
feet (91 metres) thick, underscored the drama's gravity.
Crude oil has been flowing unchecked from a ruptured well
about a mile (1.6 km) under the ocean's surface, threatening an
ecological and economic calamity along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
After other attempts to contain the spill failed, BP Plc
(BP.L) succeeded in inserting a tube into the leaking well and
capturing some oil and gas.
The underwater operation used guided robots to insert a
small tube into a 21-inch (53-cm) pipe, known as a riser, to
funnel the oil to a ship at the surface.
"It's working as planned and we are very slowly increasing
the rate that is coming from the riser tool up to the surface,"
BP senior executive vice president Kent Wells told reporters at
BP's U.S. headquarters in Houston.
Not all of the oil was being trapped, however. Wells said
it was too early to say how much had been siphoned.
"This is a good step forward," said Satish Nagarajaiah,
professor in civil and mechanical engineering at Rice
University in Houston, but he said the siphon tool is unlikely
to capture more than 15-20 percent of the oil.
TAKE A LOOK on the spill [ID:nSPILL]
INSIDER TV: link.reuters.com/rad93k
Breakingviews column [ID:nLDE64C1D1]
"NOT A SOLUTION"
U.S. government officials and lawmakers downplayed the
significance of BP's latest breakthrough.
"This technique is not a solution to the problem, and it is
not yet clear how successful it may be," Secretary of Homeland
Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of the Interior Ken
Salazar said in a joint statement.
"I don't think we should get our hopes up until we know
for sure that all of the oil is staying down," said Edward
Markey, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts.
"With reports of miles-long undersea clouds of oil floating
around the Gulf of Mexico, and the very real possibility that
more oil has been spilled than previously estimated, this
crisis is far from over," he said.
Preparations for a maneuver to inject mud into the well to
stop the leak for good were ongoing and would be completed in
seven to 10 days, Wells said. Undersea robots are preparing
pipes and hoses around the well to pump up to 40 barrels (1,680
gallons) per minute of mud into the well.
BP's best near-term hope of stopping oil from pouring from
the well is "kill mud," a heavy mixture of synthetic materials
that technicians will attempt to shoot into the well to form a
barrier to prevent oil and gas from escaping.
"Ultimately it is a winning game that we outpump the well,"
If the mud fails to seal the well, BP will try to inject
golf balls, tire fragments and other materials into the well to
clog it up -- known in the industry as a "junk shot."
The limited success on Sunday followed a previous setback,
when a cord taking the oil to the surface became entangled.
BP's earlier attempts to contain the leaking well have been
stymied by the technical difficulties of working in the sea
floor's cold, dark conditions.
On May 7, BP tried to lower a containment dome over the
leak, but the 100-tonne device was rendered useless by a slush
of frozen hydrocarbons that clogged it.
The spill began after an April 20 explosion on the
Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers. It threatens to
eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska as the worst
U.S. ecological disaster.
BP, under heavy political pressure as a result of the
spill, has a "systematic safety problem" at its oil refineries,
a U.S Labour Department official told the Financial Times.
"BP executives, they talk a good line. They say they want
to improve safety," Jordan Barab, a senior official at the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration told the paper.
"But it doesn't always translate down to the refineries
themselves. They still have a systematic safety problem."
Last year U.S. safety regulators hit BP with a record $87.4
million fine for failing to fix safety violations at its Texas
City refinery after a deadly 2005 explosion.
POTENTIAL RISK TO THE EAST, FLORIDA KEYS
So far, winds have pushed the giant slick westward and
But according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, the southern edge of the spill could make its
way into a powerful ocean current that could carry oil eastward
toward the Florida Keys and up the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.
"The southern edge of the plume could begin moving more to
the southwest and potentially into the Loop Current," NOAA
said, referring to the stream that transfers heat from the
tropics to higher latitudes and becomes the Gulf Stream.
Officials have stressed the spill has had minimal impact on
the shoreline and wildlife, but oil debris and tar balls were
washing up on barrier islands and outlying beaches in at least
a dozen places in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.
Scientists and residents of the Gulf Coast say a greater
concern is the anticipated encroachment of oil into the
environmentally fragile bayous and marshes teeming with shrimp,
oysters, crabs, fish, birds and other wildlife.
The New York Times and other media reported scientists had
detected huge oil plumes -- large columns of concentrated oil
moving beneath the ocean surface -- in the Gulf, indicating the
leak could be worse than estimates by BP and the government.
Estimates of the rate of escaping oil range widely from the
official BP figure of 5,000 barrels per day (210,000
gallons/795,000 liters), adopted by the government, to 100,000
barrels (4.2 million gallons/15.9 million liters) per day.
BP said it had no confirmation of such undersea oil plumes
and its spokesman, Andrew Gowers, appeared to dismiss the
reports as scientifically unlikely.
"It is my observation as a layman that oil is lighter than
water and tends to go up," Gowers told reporters.
BP also faces growing political pressure to prove it will
pay for all of the costs related to the spill.
Salazar and Napolitano demanded in a letter to BP Chief
Executive Tony Hayward that the company make clear its
commitment to "redress all of the damage that has occurred or
that will occur in the future as a result of the oil spill."
The letter was released on Saturday and amid concerns about
the implications of a U.S. law that limits energy companies'
liability for lost business and local tax revenues from oil
spills to $75 million.
BP spokesman David Nicholas said: "What they are requesting
in the letter is absolutely consistent with all our public
statements on the matter." [ID:nN16202416]. The Obama
administration wants to raise the limit retroactively.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Matthew Bigg, and Tom
Bergin; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Ed Stoddard and Chris