BP claims that its latest effort to stem the massive oil leaks in the Gulf of Mexico is capturing about 10,000 barrels of oil a day. That is less than half of what BP estimates is leaking – and theirs is still one of the lower estimates.
Just two weeks ago BP said that only 5,000 barrels a day were leaking.
The latest attempt to stem the flow involved cutting open the hole that the leak is pouring out of – so it actually increased the flow of oil.
The Deepwater Horizon scandal is now shaking the US. A series of federal hearings is revealing the murky background to the disaster.
President Barack Obama has pledged that everything possible is being done to halt the damage and to make BP pay.
But in practice the multinational is now allowed to treat whole stretches of the coastline as a private fiefdom.
Deepwater oil production in the Gulf of Mexico operates under a piecemeal system of legal exceptions.
When it first looked into drilling the area, BP asked for exemption from the federal law that requires an environmental review. The federal regulators granted it.
In June 2009 BP drilling engineers realised that their equipment deviated from the company’s own safety policies. They asked higher management what they should do and were told to go ahead.
The blowout preventer is a crucial failsafe mechanism near the ocean floor. But regulators granted an exception when company officials wanted to test it at a lower pressure than federal law required.
Regulators granted another exception when BP sought to delay mandatory testing of the blowout preventer after they had lost “well control” – just weeks before the rig exploded.
The Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling, went along with these requests partly because the agency collects royalty payments from the drilling companies.
One investigation complains that the service has “a culture where the acceptance of gifts from oil and gas companies was widespread”.
More than five weeks before disaster, the rig was hit by several sudden pulsations of gas called “kicks” and a pipe had become stuck in the well.
At least three times the blowout preventer was discovered to be leaking fluids. This was the piece of equipment designed to seal the well in an emergency.
BP did not provide its own cementing service. This was left to Halliburton.
A different company provided drilling fluid systems, another provided technicians to operate the remote-control vehicles that are the eyes of the rig crew deep underwater. Yet another provided the well casing.
Amid this tangle of overlapping authority and competing sub-contracting interests, no one was solely responsible for the rig’s safety.
The rig was 43 days late starting a new drilling job for BP on the day of the explosion, a delay that had cost BP more than $21 million (£15 million).
Douglas Brown, a mechanic who worked for the drilling company Transocean on the rig, testified about what had happened.
He told investigators that an unnamed BP official – the “company man” – had instructed workers to use a new plan to remove the riser and seal the well.
Brown testified that workers thought it was too risky. “The company man was basically saying, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to be’,” Brown told investigators.
BP will eventually face a court. But 37 of the 64 active or senior judges in key Gulf Coast districts in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida have links to oil, gas and related energy industries.
The links include some who own stocks or bonds in BP plc, Halliburton or Transocean – and others who regularly list receiving royalties from oil and gas production wells.
BP is fighting to get all of the cases heard as one in front of a single judge – US District Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston. For the past two years Hughes has been a “distinguished lecturer” focusing on ethical issues for the 35,000-member American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
Workers on fishing vessels were withdrawn from the cleanup operation last week because they were being made ill by the chemical dispersant used by BP.
BP boss Tony Hayward was quick to place the cause of the workers’ illnesses elsewhere. He said, “You know, food poisoning is clearly a big issue when you have a concentration of this number of people in temporary camps, temporary accommodation. It’s something we have to be very, very mindful of.”
Before it would employ them, BP made the workers sign waivers against suing for any ill effects from the spill clean up.
Meanwhile, whole sections of the Louisiana coast are sealed off from the press.
Journalists ringing the police or fire brigade are transferred to the BP public relations department.
The company has prevented journalists and photographers from going near the worst affected sites.
Most of the workers involved in the clean up operation signed contracts that ban them from talking to the media.
The workers doing the clean up have not been paid for two weeks. When they do get paid they get $10 an hour.