The risky effort to contain the gusher hit a snag when a saw became stuck in a thick pipe on the blown-out well. With the the best chance at stopping the leak at least two months away -- and with oil drifting toward Florida beaches, and investors running from BP's stock -- the goal is to free the saw and finish the cut later Wednesday.
BP engineers are trying to overcome a new snag in undersea maneuvers to capture some of the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Crews are trying to cut into the leaking pipe a mile below the ocean's surface, but work stalled when a diamond-edged saw used to sever the pipe got stuck according, to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the oil spill.
Allen, who is overseeing efforts to stop the flow, says it isn't uncommon for a saw to get stuck in the middle of a big job.
"Anybody who has ever used a saw knows it will bind up. That's what's happening there, and they're trying to move the riser pipe to free it or send another blade down," Allen said.
The company is trying to cap the pipe with an oil-collecting device designed to conduct the spewing oil up to a ship on the surface. But it's considered a stopgap measure until August, when relief wells that will intersect the ruptured well will be completed.
Officials acknowledge that the "cut and cap" procedure could end up sending more oil into the Gulf.
"Think of a kinked garden hose: If you take out the kink, more water will flow through. Same thing with this kinked pipe," NPR's Richard Harris told Morning Edition. "The question is how much more. ... BP has said that once the pipe is cut, it probably will only increase the flow by about 10 percent. The government has done its own analysis and says it's likely to be more like 20 percent."
The effort underwater was going on as oil drifted close to the Florida Panhandle's white sand beaches for the first time and investors ran from BP's stock for a second day, reacting to the company's failure to plug the leak by shooting mud and cement into the well, known as the top kill. The Justice Department also has announced it started criminal and civil probes into the spill, although the department did not name specific targets for prosecution.
Shares in British-based BP PLC were down 3 percent Wednesday morning in London trading after a 13 percent fall the day before. BP has lost $75 billion in market value since the spill started with an April 20 oil rig explosion and analysts expect damage claims to total billions more.
In Florida, Allen said oil was about 7 miles south of Pensacola beach, where the summer tourism season was just getting started. Winds were forecast to blow from the south and west, pushing the slick closer to western Panhandle beaches.
Emergency crews began scouring the beaches for oil and shoring up miles of boom. County officials will use it to block oil from reaching inland waterways but plan to leave beaches unprotected because they are too difficult to protect and easier to clean up.
"It's inevitable that we will see it on the beaches," said Keith Wilkins, deputy chief of neighborhood and community services for Escambia County.
Blobs of weathered oil have turned up on the beaches of Alabama's Dauphin Island, and crews in Louisiana and Mississippi are continuing to clean oil from marshes and beaches.
The oil has been spreading in the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded six weeks ago, killing 11 workers and eventually sinking. The rig was being operated for BP, the largest oil and gas producer in the Gulf. Crude has already been reported along barrier islands in Alabama and Mississippi, and it has polluted some 125 miles of Louisiana coastline.
Allen, the national incident commander for the spill, said the threat of oil hitting the coast was shifting east, and skimmer vessels would be working offshore to intercept as much crude as possible.
Earlier this week, BP officials said they were concentrating cleanup efforts in Louisiana because they did not expect oil to reach other states.
More federal fishing waters were closed, too, another setback for one of the region's most important industries. More than one-third of federal waters were off-limits for fishing, along with hundreds of square miles of state waters.
Fisherman Hong Le, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam, had rebuilt his home and business after Hurricane Katrina wiped him out. Now he's facing a similar situation.
"I'm going to be bankrupt very soon," Le, 53, said as he attended a meeting for fishermen hoping for help. "Everything is financed, how can I pay? No fishing, no welding. I weld on commercial fishing boats and they aren't going out now, so nothing breaks."
Le, like other of the fishermen, received $5,000 from BP PLC, but it was quickly gone.
"I call that 'Shut your mouth money,"' said Murray Volk, 46, of Empire, who's been fishing for nearly 30 years. "That won't pay the insurance on my boat and house. They say there'll be more later, but do you think the electric company will wait for that?"
BP may have bigger problems, though. Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited the Gulf on Tuesday, would not say who 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.
The federal government also ramped up its response to the spill with President Obama ordering 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 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.
BP has tried and failed repeatedly to halt the flow of the oil, and the latest attempt like others has never been tried before a mile beneath the ocean. Experts warned it could be even riskier than the others because slicing open the 20-inch riser could unleash more oil if there was a kink in the pipe that restricted some of the flow.
"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."
Engineers have put underwater robots and equipment in place this week after a bold 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.
BP's best chance to permanently plug the leak rests with that pair of relief wells that won't be completed until August. Meantime, BP is considering contingencies for its latest plan. The approach of hurricane season is one concern, according to NPR's Harris.
"The initial plan has a rigid pipe that goes from this [destroyed] blowout preventer up to the surface. And you can't operate in a big storm when you're doing that," Harris said. "So BP has been thinking about that; the government people have been thinking about that. And actually they are developing a backup plan."
But he stressed that it's all a stopgap. The relief wells that should be completed two months from now will connect with the bottom of the broken well, "and the idea is to be able to shove down enough mud to stop the flow and then shove in cement to permanently block it off." And for now, that's considered BP's best chance at stopping the leak.
Contributing: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Orange Beach, Ala.; The Associated Press Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.