HOUSTON/WASHINGTON BP Plc could start plugging its broken deepsea oil well in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday night, more than three months after its rupture led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
BP engineers were preparing to pump heavy drilling mud and cement into the well in a procedure known as a "static kill," retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. official overseeing the federal spill response, said on Sunday.
He said the two-pronged effort to finally kill the runaway well would start "as early as Monday night" or possibly early on Tuesday with the static kill procedure.
Five to seven days later, mud and cement would be pumped in from below, via a relief well that has been dug deep into the earth, to seal the leak once and for all.
After earlier attempts to plug the well were plagued by setbacks, this week's effort will be closely watched from Washington to London, from the Gulf coast to Wall Street.
The 104-day-old environmental disaster has devastated coastal communities, tarnished the British company's image in the United States and cost it billions of dollars in clean-up costs. It has also eroded President Barack Obama's approval ratings and raised tensions between Washington and London.
Allen told reporters he would travel to BP's Houston headquarters to oversee the "static kill." Engineers would know within hours whether the procedure had worked, he said.
The well has been temporarily sealed for two weeks after spilling up to 60,000 barrels a day since April, when an oil rig explosion killed 11 workers and triggered the leak.
The ensuing spill killed countless marine creatures, hit coastal beaches and marshes and dealt a severe blow to fishermen and other business owners along the Gulf Coast.
As part of the clean-up efforts, BP has used huge quantities of chemical dispersants to break up oil slicks before the reach land. But their use has stirred concern among environmentalists worried about their environmental impact.
On Sunday, the office of U.S. Representative Ed Markey, who has been an outspoken critic of BP's handling of the spill, released a letter in which he accused the oil giant of over-using dispersants.
He also suggested the U.S. Coast Guard, in giving BP the go-ahead to use the dispersants, may have ignored Environmental Protection Agency guidelines that sought to reduce the amount of dispersants in the water.
BP NAME CHANGE?
Markey said dispersants "have been used both above and below the surface of the Gulf waters, contributing to a toxic stew of chemicals, oil and gas with impacts that are not well understood."
Responding to Markey's letter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said BP had effectively met a target to cut its use of dispersants by 75 percent from peak usage in May.
Allen also defended the use of dispersants, saying "sometimes there is no other way to attack the oil." He denied that the Coast Guard and the EPA, headed by Lisa Jackson, had differing approaches to the issue.
"There is no disagreement between Lisa Jackson and I regarding what we want to do with dispersants. This really is an issue of making decisions day to day based on where the oil is at out there," he said.
For its part, BP remains focused on this week's static kill procedure.
After replacing chief executive Tony Hayward and announcing plans to sell $30 billion in assets to help cover its liabilities, BP is anxious to show investors it is close to finally getting control of the well.
BP's market value has fallen about 40 percent since the crisis began on April 20, and last week it posted a second quarter loss of $17 billion.
But even as the company tries to rebuild its brand, its distributors in the United States are asking whether it is not time for a name change, said John Kleine, executive director of the BP Amoco Marketers Association.
BP distributors were asking about rebranding their operations as Amoco, he told Reuters in an email. Many current BP distributors used to be distributors for Amoco, which BP bought in 1998.
"That really comes from being concerned about their business, their livelihood, their investment, seeing every day the news that would tend to make you believe that the business is going to decline," Kleine said.
(Reporting by Bruce Nichols, Deborah Zabarenko, Ross Colvin and Chris Baltimore, writing by Ross Colvin, editing by Todd Eastham)