June 01, 2010, 5:23PM
NEW ORLEANS -- BP's stock plummeted and took much of the market down with it Tuesday as the federal government announced criminal and civil investigations into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and BP engineers tried to recover from a failed attempt to stop the gusher with an effort that will initially make the leak worse.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who was visiting the Gulf to survey the fragile coastline and meet with state and federal prosecutors, would not specify the companies or individuals that might be targeted in the probes into the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
"We will closely examine the actions of those involved in the spill. If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be extremely forceful in our response," Holder said in New Orleans.
BP's stock nose-dived on Tuesday, losing nearly 15 percent of its value on the first trading day since the previous best option -- the so-called "top kill" -- failed and was aborted at the government's direction. It dipped steeply with Holder's late-afternoon announcement, which also sent other energy stocks tumbling, ultimately causing the Dow Jones industrial average to tumble 112.
After six weeks of failures to block the well or divert the oil, BP was using robotic machines to carve into the twisted appendages of the crippled well. The latest attempt involved using tools resembling an oversized deli slicer and garden shears to break away the broken riser pipe so engineers can then position a cap over the well's opening.
Even if it succeeds, it will temporarily increase the flow of an already massive leak by 20 percent -- at least 100,000 gallons more a day. And it is far from certain that BP will be able to cap a well that one expert compared to an out-of-control fire hydrant.
"It is an engineer's nightmare," said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University professor of environmental sciences. "They're trying to fit a 21-inch cap over a 20-inch pipe a mile away. That's just horrendously hard to do. It's not like you and I standing on the ground pushing -- they're using little robots to do this."
The operation has never been performed in such deep water, and is similar to an earlier failed attempt that used a larger cap and quickly froze up. BP PLC officials said they were applying lessons learned from the earlier effort.
"If all goes as planned, within about 24 hours we could have this contained," BP's Doug Suttles said Tuesday after touring a temporary housing facility set up for cleanup workers in Grand Isle. "But we can't guarantee success."
Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and eventually collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico, an estimated 20 million to 40 million gallons of oil has spewed, eclipsing the 11 million that leaked from the Exxon Valdez disaster.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, ordered the co-chairmen of an independent commission investigating the spill to thoroughly examine the disaster, "to follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favor."
The commission -- led by Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator, and William K. Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency -- will be examining the disaster and its causes. The president said that if laws are insufficient, they'll be changed. He said that if government oversight wasn't tough enough, that will change, too.
Holder said the laws under review for the criminal and civil probes include the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. He said the government would pursue criminal charges "if warranted," a caveat he did not include for civil action.
"We will ensure that every cent, every cent of taxpayer money, will be repaid and that damage to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed," he said.
Washington lawyer Stan Brand said that two likely criminal law theories the Justice Department will pursue are false statements to the Interior Department's Mineral Management Service and obstruction by failing to produce evidence to investigators.
But Brand and longtime Washington lawyer Stephen Ryan, a former federal prosecutor and ex-congressional investigator, predicted it will be difficult to prove criminality.
"Bad business judgment isn't a crime," said Ryan.
Criminal charges have met with mixed results in two previous high-profile U.S. oil spills.
Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez supertanker that ran aground off Alaska's coast in 1989, was acquitted of being drunk when the accident occurred, but convicted of a misdemeanor for negligent oil discharge. He was fined $50,000 and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service.
Hong Kong-based Fleet Management Ltd. paid a $10 million fine after pleading guilty to obstruction charges following a 2007 oil spill after one of the company's cargo ships struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The ship's pilot pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
The government would have a lower burden of proof in a civil case. In the Valdez spill, thousands of fishermen, cannery workers, landowners and Native Americans were initially awarded $5 billion in punitive damages, but the amount was eventually reduced to $507.5 million.
BP engineers began putting underwater robots and equipment in place this week after an attempt to plug the well by force-feeding it heavy mud and cement -- called a "top kill" -- was aborted over the weekend. Crews pumped thousands of gallons of the mud into the well but were unable to overcome the pressure of the oil.
The next plan has BP engineers placing a cap-like containment valve over the well. Not all the gushing oil will be captured through the "cut and cap" method, but the company said it could siphon most of the crude to a vessel on the surface.
Experts warned this effort to siphon the oil could be even riskier than earlier attempts because slicing open the 20-inch riser could unleash more oil if there is a kink in the pipe that has been restricting some of the flow.
Eric Smith, an associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, likened the procedure to trying to place a tiny cap on a fire hydrant that's blowing straight up.
"Will they have enough weight to overcome the force of the flow?" he said. "It could create a lot of turbulence, but I do think they'll have enough weight."
BP officials say they have learned valuable lessons from last month's failure of a bigger version of the containment cap that became clogged with icelike slush.
Engineers say they plan to pump warm water through pipes into the smaller dome to prevent any icing problems. And Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, said crews have forged two different versions of the cap in case one doesn't fit snugly enough on top of the blowout preventer, the massive device that was supposed to plug the leak.
Before it can place the caps, the company plans to cut the riser in two different places, keeping it aloft with a massive crane so it doesn't collapse to the seafloor.
Gigantic shears will cleave off the far end of the riser while a diamond cutter, lowered on top of the blowout preventer early Tuesday, will try to make an even cut through the other end of the tube. A clean cut from the diamond cutter, which resembles a deli slicer, is important because engineers will then lower a heavy cap on top of the sheared-off tube to seal the leak.
The dome would be attached to a mile-long tube that siphons the oil and gas to the surface. Underwater robots also could attach separate hoses to the dome by the middle of June that would pump some of the oil flow to a separate boat floating on the water.
"We now will have two different options," said Wells. "So if we have any temporary issues with one, we'll just move more of the flow back and forth."
BP's best chance to actually plug the leak rests with a pair of relief wells that likely won't be completed until August.
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