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Oil leak largest in U.S. history

| Friday, May 28, 2010

ROBERT, La. -- As BP labored for a second day Thursday to choke off the leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, dire new government estimates showed the disaster has easily eclipsed the Exxon Valdez as the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

The company announced late in the day that it had suspended shooting heavy drilling mud into the blown-out well 5,000 feet underwater around midnight Wednesday so it could assess how the effort was working and bring in more materials.

On Thursday evening, BP PLC said it had resumed the pumping procedure known as a top kill. Officials said it could be late today or the weekend before the company knows whether it has cut off the oil that has been flowing for five weeks.

As the world waited, President Obama announced major new restrictions on drilling projects, and the head of the federal agency that regulates the industry resigned under pressure, becoming the highest-ranking political casualty of the crisis so far.

BP insisted the top kill was progressing as planned, though the company acknowledged drilling mud was escaping from the broken pipe along with the leaking crude.

"The fact that we had a bunch of mud going up the riser isn't ideal, but it's not necessarily indicative of a problem," said spokesman Tom Mueller.

Early Thursday, officials said the process was going well, but later in the day they announced pumping had been suspended 16 hours earlier. BP did not characterize the suspension as a setback, and Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said the move did not indicate the top kill had failed.

"The good news is that they pumped in up to 65 barrels a minute and the thing didn't blow apart," Smith said. "It's taken the most pressure it needs to see, and it's held together."

The top kill is the latest in a string of attempts to stop the oil that has been spewing since the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20. Eleven workers were killed.

If the procedure works, BP will inject cement into the well to seal it permanently. If it doesn't, the company has a number of backup plans. Either way, crews will continue to drill two relief wells, considered the only surefire way to stop the leak.

A top kill has never been attempted before so deep underwater. BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said the company also is considering shooting small, dense rubber balls or assorted junk such as golf balls and rubber scraps to stop up a crippled five-story piece of equipment known as a blowout preventer to keep the mud from escaping.

The stakes were higher than ever as public frustration over the spill grew and a team of government scientists said the oil has been flowing at a rate 2.5 to five times higher than what BP and the Coast Guard previously estimated.

Two teams of scientists calculated the well has been spewing between 504,000 and more than 1 million gallons a day. Even using the most conservative estimate, that means about 18 million gallons have spilled so far. In the worst-case scenario, 39 million gallons have leaked.

That larger figure would be nearly four times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which a tanker ran aground in Alaska in 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons.

"Now we know the true scale of the monster we are fighting in the gulf," said Jeremy Symons, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. "BP has unleashed an unstoppable force of appalling proportions."

The spill is not the biggest in the gulf. In 1979, a drilling rig in Mexican waters -- the Ixtoc I -- blew up, releasing 140 million gallons of oil.

In another troubling discovery, marine scientists said they have spotted a huge new plume of what they believe to be oil deep beneath the gulf, stretching 22 miles from the leaking wellhead northeast toward Mobile Bay, Ala. They fear it could have resulted from using chemicals a mile below the surface to break up the oil.

In Washington, Elizabeth Birnbaum stepped down as director of the Minerals Management Service, a job she had held since July. Her agency has been harshly criticized over lax oversight of drilling and cozy ties with industry.

An internal Interior Department report released this week found that between 2000 and 2008, agency staff members accepted tickets to sports events, lunches and other gifts from oil and gas companies and used government computers to view pornography.

Polls show the public is souring on the Obama administration's handling of the catastrophe, and the president sought to assure Americans that the government is in control and deflect criticism that his administration has left BP in charge.

Obama said he would end the "scandalously close relationship" between regulators and the oil companies they oversee. He also extended a freeze on new deepwater oil drilling and canceled or delayed proposed lease sales in the waters off Alaska and Virginia and along the Gulf Coast.

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