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BP turns to smaller tube

This Tuesday, May 11, 2010 image provided by the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command shows a small pollution containment chamber, known as the "top hat", being lowered into the Gulf of Mexico in Port Fourchon, La.  BP announced Wednesday, May 12, 2010 that the "top hat" was on the sea floor near the wild well that has spewed at least 4 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. (AP Photo/Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley)

This Tuesday, May 11, 2010 image provided by the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command shows a small pollution containment chamber, known as the "top hat", being lowered into the Gulf of Mexico in Port Fourchon, La. BP announced Wednesday, May 12, 2010 that the "top hat" was on the sea floor near the wild well that has spewed at least 4 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. (AP Photo/Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley)

WASHINGTON -- BP officials said Thursday they would thread a small tube into a jagged pipe on the seafloor to suck oil to the surface before it can spew into the Gulf and add to a disaster apparently set in motion by a long list of equipment failures.

Engineers will have to make sure the 6-inch-wide tube is inserted deep enough into the 21-inch-wide pipe so gas and seawater don't mix, which can form crystals that could clog the tube. They'll also have to thread the tube into the pipe without hitting debris around the riser.

The smaller tube will be surrounded by a stopper to keep oil from leaking into the sea. The tube will then siphon the crude to a tanker at the surface, though BP declined to estimate how much oil the tube will be able to collect.

Company spokesman Bill Salvin said engineers hope to start moving the tube into place Thursday night, but it will take 12 hours to get the tube fully hooked up. Another option is a small containment box called a ''top hat,'' which is already on the seafloor and also would siphon oil to a tanker on the surface.

Officials are waiting to use the box until they know if the tube works, and how well it's working, Salvin said.

BP's updates came a day after hearings in Washington and Louisiana uncovered a checklist of unseen breakdowns on largely unregulated aspects of well safety that apparently contributed to the April 20 blowout aboard the Deepwater Horizon: a leaky cement job, a loose hydraulic fitting, a dead battery. Company officials insist what caused the accident is not yet clear.

The well's operator, BP PLC, said Thursday its costs for trying to stop the gusher, containing the spill and helping Gulf states foot the response tab totaled $450 million, up $100 million since its May 10 update to securities regulators. BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles has said the bill increases by at least $10 million a day.

Desperate rig workers tried to activate a set of hydraulic cutoff valves known as a blowout preventer to squeeze off the surge. However, hydraulic fluid was leaking from a loose fitting in the preventer's emergency system, making it harder to activate powerful shear rams to cut the piping and cap the blowout. Also, a battery had gone dead in at least one of two control pods meant to automatically switch on the preventer in an emergency.

Industry officials acknowledged a fistful of regulatory and operational gaps: There is no government standard for design or installation of blowout preventers. The federal government doesn't routinely inspect them before they are installed. Their emergency systems usually go untested once they are set on the seafloor at the mouth of the well. The federal government doesn't require a backup.