The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is the worst environmental disaster the US has ever faced, the White House conceded yesterday as it warned Americans to be prepared for oil and gas to keep leaking into the ocean for almost three more months.
Forty days after the fatal oil rig explosion that ripped a hole in the sea bed, BP gave up on its latest desperate bid to stop the flow, a failure that the company said “scares everybody”.
By yesterday, its engineers had returned to the drawing board to design a new way of funnelling some escaping oil to the surface for collection. It is a process that, if successful, will capture a majority of the oil, leaving the rest to swell a slick that is already licking the shore in Louisiana, affecting sensitive wildlife areas and threatening the livelihoods of fishing communities along the coast.
Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana, declared that the state was in “a war to protect our way of life”.
Many beaches that would normally be teeming with visitors for the Memorial Day long weekend were deserted yesterday, and residents reacted with anger and despair at news that the so-called “top kill” procedure had failed.
BP had spent three days pumping mud and junk into the hole, in what Robert Dudley, BP's managing director, called an attempt to “wrestle this beast to the ground”. The beast proved stronger than their efforts, however.
And so the underwater camera showing the leak, which has provided a transfixing visual accompaniment to the blizzard of Press conferences and television appearances of BP bosses and White House officials, continues to show thick black oil spewing out, 5,000ft below the surface of the ocean.
A new relief well that will permanently replace the destroyed rig will not be ready until “late August”, Mr Dudley said.
Between 20 and 40 million gallons of oil have leaked into the ocean and though the exact rate of release is unknown, it has already become clear that this is the biggest spill in US history, eclipsing the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama's energy adviser, Carol Browner, declared it “probably the biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced in this country”.
The latest attempt to stop the leak is to place a smaller cap, called a “lower marine riser package”, over the hole in a procedure that will involve cutting off the broken drilling pipe on the seabed.
There is “no guarantee” that this tricky procedure will be a success either, Mr Dudley said.
With hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico each day, and its corporate image starting to resemble the tar-covered sea creatures now washing on to Louisiana's fragile shoreline, BP has called on Kevin Costner to help stave off environmental Armageddon.