“Top Kill” Fails, BP Moves On To Plan C

Late yesterday, the officials in charge of trying to stop the Gulf Oil Spill announced that their latest efforts had ended in failure:

NEW ORLEANS — In another serious setback in the effort to stem the flow of oil gushing from a well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers said Saturday that the “top kill” technique had failed and, after consultation with government officials, they had decided to move on to another strategy.

Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said at a news conference that the engineers would try once again to solve the problem with a containment cap and that it could take four to seven days for the device to be in place.

“After three full days of attempting top kill, we now believe it is time to move on to the next of our options,” Mr. Suttles said.

The abandonment of the top kill technique, the most ambitious effort yet to plug the well, was the latest in a series of failures. First, BP failed in efforts to repair a blowout preventer with submarine robots. Then its initial efforts to cap the well with a containment dome failed when it became clogged with a frothy mix of frigid water and gas. Efforts to use a hose to gather escaping oil have managed to catch only a fraction of the spill.

BP has started work on two relief wells, but officials have said that they will not be completed until August — further contributing to what is already the worst oil spill in United States history.

The latest failure will undoubtedly put more pressure — both politically and from the public — on the Obama administration to take some sort of action, perhaps taking control of the repair effort completely from BP.

President Obama, who is spending the Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, issued a statement Saturday evening on the decision to abandon the top kill.

“While we initially received optimistic reports about the procedure, it is now clear that it has not worked,” Mr. Obama said.

He said that Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry of the Coast Guard had “directed BP to launch a new procedure whereby the riser pipe will be cut and a containment structure fitted over the leak.”

“This approach is not without risk and has never been attempted before at this depth,” Mr. Obama said. “That is why it was not activated until other methods had been exhausted.”

The president continued, “We will continue to pursue any and all responsible means of stopping this leak until the completion of the two relief wells currently being drilled.”

Other reports expanded on the President’s comments:

CHICAGO — President Barack Obama said Saturday that the failure of BP’s latest effort to stop the damaging flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is “as enraging as it is heartbreaking.”

Enraging ?

When I heard that part of the statement last night, it struck me as odd, and a little out of place. It sounds like the White House is trying to convey a “tough guy” attitude in response to increasing public perception that they’ve been too passive in response to the oil spill, but to describe yourself as enraged over what was essentially an engineering failure under incredibly difficult conditions strikes me as more than a little odd.

In any event, the failure of Top Kill is certainly a disappointment and most likely a sign that we’re looking at a far worse environmental disaster than anyone ever anticipated.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    He’s obviously psychologically invested at this point, and his earlier comments about the safety of offshore drilling, confidence in new technologies, must gnaw.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think we should be cautious in searching for a villain. If there is actual culpability, I believe it should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    But it’s possible that, despite the problems at MMS, there isn’t actual any wrong-doing involved. What we may be seeing may just be accidents. They happen.

    What’s important now is getting the flow staunched. The administration should be cautious about doing anything, including making premature claims that may not bear out, that could impede BP’s efforts to deal with the problem.

    Another thing we should remember is that we can’t escape possible consequences of off-shore drilling by prohibiting it within our territorial waters. We aren’t the only ones drilling off-shore in the Gulf. Mexico and Venezuela are both heavily involved in off-shore drilling and Cuba may do so, as well. We have a lot more control over safety and procedures in our own territorial waters than we do in Mexican, Venezuelan, and Cuban waters.

  3. Dave,

    Take a look at the other post I did on this this morning.

    I’ll leave the engineering commentary to the experts, but the allegations that BP was cutting safety corners has been brewing for a few weeks now.

  4. JKB says:

    You know who gets enraged when something technical doesn’t go their way? Toddlers. I wonder if Obama cried and declared he didn’t want that stupid oil anyway? Maybe if the kitchen could send up some cookies?

    Really with all of people Obama and his staff know in Hollywood, you’d think they could find one to at least show them how to act like adults. Or, you know, how to describe situation appropriate emotions.

  5. JKB

    I don’t necessary think that Obama was really “enraged” I think that its something the press office put in the statement.

  6. john personna says:

    Saw this via memeorandum:

    The combination of Obama’s passivity over the Gulf oil spill catastrophe and his cynical political manoeuvrings could spell disaster for him, argues Toby Harnden ..

    Add to the frustration that something he absolutely should not have been micromanaging could now be his undoing. James sees a cult of the Presidency. I see weird echoes of tribal chiefs … humans did depose chiefs (or worse) when they brought bad luck, when the gods were displeased …

    “why didn’t Obama stop the leak?”

    It’s not rational, but it’s coming from somewhere human.

  7. JKB says:

    I don’t necessary think that Obama was really “enraged” I think that its something the press office put in the statement.

    The article attributes it to Obama’s comments. Still, I doubt he was actually enraged but rather this was an attempt to map some emotion on Obama. Another miss, in my book. I am concerned that I mentioned this on the same day Maureen Dowd posted an op-ed “President Spock’s behavior”.

    Too often it feels as though Barry is watching from a balcony, reluctant to enter the fray until the clamor of the crowd forces him to come down. The pattern is perverse. The man whose presidency is rooted in his ability to inspire withholds that inspiration when it is most needed.

    As to the press office, well all to often, so far, Obama’s people have not done him any favors with their postings. They select photos for the WH website that scream for mocking. Release statements that invoke images of a man alloof. It’s like they can’t see the work through the eyes of the country.