* BP CEO says 'top kill' proceeding as planned
* Maneuver never before attempted at this depth
* Failure may push Obama to take charge of response
* Hopeful investors boost BP share price
(Updates with command center briefing, local comment)
By Chris Baltimore and Tom Bergin
HOUSTON, May 26 BP Plc's chief executive said a
difficult deep-sea operation to plug a gushing oil well was
proceeding as planned on Wednesday and the next 24 hours will
determine the energy giant's success in stanching the leak deep
on the Gulf of Mexico floor.
BP remained cautious about the outcome of the much
anticipated "top kill" procedure, as did President Barack
Obama, whose credibility stands to suffer if one of the
country's worst environmental catastrophes does not end soon.
But the fact that the London-based energy giant was able to
launch the complex maneuver around midday and keep it on track
in the first hours was a welcome respite from a string of
failures and setbacks in the 37 days since a rig blast
triggered the disaster.
Undersea robots were helping to inject heavy fluids and
ultimately cement pumped down about a mile (1.6 km) to the
sea-bed well, while BP chief executive Tony Hayward and U.S.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu monitored operations together in
"The operation is proceeding as we planned it," Hayward
said in a media briefing four hours after launching the top
kill strategy. [nWLA5010]
"It will be another 24 hours before we know whether or not
this has been successful," he added.
TAKE A LOOK on the spill [ID:nSPILL]
INSIDER TV: link.reuters.com/wuw64k
The embattled CEO stood by BP's 60-70 percent odds of
success. But top kill, a routine procedure on the surface, has
never been attempted at such depths, prompting one industry
expert to predict less favorable odds.
"You have got some of the smartest guys in the business
trying to figure this out, but it has never been done before,"
David Pursell, partner at Houston investment bank Tudor,
Pickering, Holt & Co, told Reuters Insider.
"I think the odds have to be 50 percent or less," he added.
Obama said that if successful, BP's plan to cap the well
should greatly reduce or eliminate the flow of hundreds of
thousands of gallons (liters) of crude billowing into the Gulf.
If it fails, "there are other approaches that may be
viable," he said on a trip to California.
Obama, who has told aides to "plug the damn hole," will
head to Louisiana on Friday for the second time since the April
20 rig blast that killed 11 and unleashed the oil.
If the top kill fails, the next approach would be to
install a containment device over the broken blowout preventer,
a structure at the top of the well on the ocean floor, said BP
chief operating officer Doug Suttles said at a briefing with
the Coast Guard Wednesday.
It is still unclear how much oil is flowing from the well,
but it is already shaping up to be the worst oil spill in U.S.
history and a long-term threat to a rich ecosystem.
The disaster is also reshaping the U.S. oil industry. Obama
is expected to announce on Thursday that he will continue to
hold off issuing deep water drilling permits off the Gulf of
Mexico, but allow permits to be issued for shallow water
drilling, a government source told Reuters. [nN26215306]
The oil's destruction of critical habitats continued to
spread, with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal saying that more
than 100 miles (160 km) of the state's 400-mile (644 km)
coastline were now affected. [nN26221290]
PIVOTAL DAYS FOR OBAMA, BP
These days may be critical for BP and Obama.
BP's reputation and its big presence in the United States
is at stake and investors, who have wiped $50 billion off BP's
market value since the start of the spill, will watch closely
to see whether the latest attempt to seal the well works.
BP shares seesawed in London trading on Wednesday, with
investors boosting the share price about 2.6 percent at one
point before it closed up 1.4 percent. BP's announcement that
it had launched top kill came after London markets had closed.
If the effort fails, Obama may have no choice but to take
charge of the response. He has so far deflected calls for the
government to take a more direct role and said BP has legal
responsibility for fixing the mess.
What he can do is unclear because the government does not
have its own deepwater tools and technology and will have to
rely on BP.
But even with Obama applying constant pressure on the
company, polls show that nearly half of Americans are unhappy
with how he has handled it. That sentiment could play into the
November elections that are widely expected to erode his
Democratic Party's control of the U.S. Congress.
Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson said if BP failed to
plug the leak this week, Obama must seize personal control of
the effort immediately.
"If this thing doesn't work then the president ought to
turn this over to the military. It has the command structure to
bring in all the civilian agencies," said Nelson.
LOST COASTLINE EXASPERATES LOCALS
BP has estimated that about 5,000 barrels (210,000
gallons/795,000 liters) have been leaking every day, although
some scientists have given much higher numbers for the size of
the leak -- up to 20 times more.
Residents of the Gulf region are particularly concerned
about the impact of spreading oil on wildlife and area
shorelines, home to a $6.5 billion seafood industry and
lucrative fishing tourism.
Operation "top kill" was not putting them at ease.
"If I was a betting man I'd say the odds are better than
last time, but I still don't think it is going to happen," a
fishing guide who goes by the name of Captain Boola said at a
marina at Venice, Louisiana.
He said he only fished with clients three days this month
and had cancellations through to November.
Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, one of
the worst affected Louisiana coastal districts so far, sharply
criticized BP and the Coast Guard, saying they had no
comprehensive plan to defend the coast from the oil.
"We will lose more coastline from this catastrophe than
from all four hurricanes -- Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike,"
(Additional reporting by Kristin Hays in Houston, Ed
Stoddard in Venice, Louisiana, Pascal Fletcher in Miami, Susan
Heavey and Tom Doggett in Washington, Jeff Mason in Fremont,
California; writing by Mary Milliken; editing by Philip
(For multimedia coverage, please click here))