Oil industry engineers remained in hope-and-pray mode June 1 as they prepared for another try at controlling the geyser of oil spewing from the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico. On this first day of the Atlantic hurricane season, experts were cringing at the thought of what could happen next if storm

BP will try to use a smaller cap to gain control of the wellhead spewing oil from the sea floor.
Photo: BP
BP will try to use a smaller cap to gain control of the wellhead spewing oil from the sea floor.
Cutterhead dredges will be used to build up shoreline berms...if contracts flow.
Photo: Angelle Bergeron
Cutterhead dredges will be used to build up shoreline berms...if contracts flow.

winds drive oil ashore and deep into the marshes. And in Washington, D.C., June 1, Attorney Gen. Eric Holder said the U.S. Justice Dept. has begun a criminal probe of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the subsequent spill. Holder did not specify which parties the government is investigating.

As the fight to staunch the well continues, the Obama administration is making policy with big ramifications for the oil sector. On May 27, the president said the U.S. will halt exploration for offshore oil at two sites off Alaska, and canceled a pending lease sale for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as a proposed lease for drilling off the coast of Virginia.

The president also has called for a moratorium on deepwater drilling to be extended for at least six months, until a presidential commission investigating the spill completes its review.

Additionally, the U.S. will suspend action on 33 deepwater exploratory wells being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Operators must stop drilling at the first “safe” stopping point, says Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. New safety checks will be imposed as they shut down.

The national incident commander, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said another attempt to cap the spewing well has begun. BP crews will try to set a new riser package over the failed blowout preventer atop the well. Placement is expected to take 72 hours.

But on the shoreline, no decision had been reached on a proposal to build 45 miles of coastal barrier berms to keep oil from filtering into marshes and block storm surge. The state of Louisiana was offered an emergency permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 27, but by June 1 had not moved to contracts. “The state has not signed the permits yet,” says Ken Holder, chief of public affairs for the Corps’ New Orleans District. Queries to Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority were unanswered, so the reason for the state’s delay is unknown. But according to one source, dredging contractors have problems with the project delivery schemes.

The designs, which sources say were proposed by the authority, involve dredging from designated borrow sites and transporting and dumping to stockpile areas. The stockpiles then would be dredged to create the berms. Contractors are believed to have concerns that the process may introduce mud into the material and compromise berm integrity. Several dredging contractors approached for confirmation either didn’t return calls or declined to comment. 

BP’s Next Plans

After its top kill and junk shots failed to seal the well May 30, BP has refocused on finding a way to capture the oil, until it is sealed by one of two relief wells now being drilled. One expert says BP is correct to focus on source control and sealing the well. “They are taking the lead because they are the entity with the greatest know-how, compared to the federal government,” says Pedro Alvarez, chair of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, Houston. He admits, however, that this amounts to the “blind leading the blind.”

BP’s next effort involves using remotely operated vehicles and a saw to cut the 1-in.-thick, 20-in.-dia. steel riser above the blowout preventer. Then, the ROVs will use a diamond cutter to trim the pipe to a smooth surface. BP has built...