NEW ORLEANS — The best hope for stopping the flow of oil from the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has been compared to hitting a target the size of a dinner plate with a drill more than 2 miles into the earth, and is anything but a sure bet on the first attempt.
Bid after bid has failed to stanch what has already become the nation's worst-ever spill, and BP is readying another patchwork attempt as early as Wednesday, this one a cut-and-cap process to put a lid on the leaking wellhead so oil could be siphoned to the surface.
But the best-case scenario of sealing the leak is two relief wells being drilled diagonally into the gushing well — tricky business that won't be ready until August.
"The probability of them hitting it on the very first shot is virtually nil," said David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, who spent most of his 39 years in the oil industry in offshore exploration. "If they get it on the first three or four shots, they'd be very lucky."
President Barack Obama planned to meet today with the co-chairmen of an independent commission investigating BP's catastrophic spill.
Obama will meet at the White House with Bob Graham, who is a former Florida governor and U.S. senator, and William K. Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"This is probably one of the most important environmental issues that the U.S. has faced maybe in my lifetime," Graham, 73, told the St. Petersburg Times Monday night.
Meanwhile, for the relief well to succeed, the bore hole must precisely intersect the damaged well.
"We don't know how much oil is down there, and hopefully we'll never know when the relief wells work," BP spokesman John Curry said. The company was starting to collect and analyze data on how much oil might be in the reservoir when the rig exploded April 20, he said.
Two relief wells stopped the world's worst peacetime spill, from a Mexican rig called Ixtoc 1 that dumped 140 million gallons off the Yucatan Peninsula. That plug took nearly 10 months beginning in the summer of 1979.
So far, the gulf oil spill has leaked between 19.7 million and 43 million gallons, according to government estimates.
BP is turning to another risky procedure federal officials acknowledge will likely, at least temporarily, cause 20 percent more oil — at least 100,000 gallons a day — to add to the gusher.
Using robot submarines, BP plans to cut away the riser pipe this week and place a cap-like containment valve over the blowout preventer.
The company hopes it will capture the majority of the oil, sending it to the surface.
BP failed to plug the leak Saturday with its top kill, which shot mud and pieces of rubber into the well but couldn't beat back the pressure of the oil.
Meanwhile, the location of the spill couldn't be worse.
To the south of the leak lies an essential spawning ground for imperiled Atlantic bluefin tuna and sperm whales. To the east and west, coral reefs and the coastal fisheries of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. And to the north, Louisiana's coastal marshes.
More than 125 miles of Louisiana coastline already have been hit with oil. "It's just killing us by degrees," said Tulane University ecologist Tom Sherry.
Another worry is the potential arrival of hurricanes in the gulf; hurricane season officially begins today.
Engineers and technicians working on the response said that an active hurricane season, which is predicted, could not only push more oil ashore, but also cause weeks of delays in efforts to contain the spill.
"Safety first," said Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman.
Three of the worst storms ever to hit the Gulf Coast — Betsy in 1965, Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005 — all passed over the leak site.
Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive, drew criticism on Sunday when he said his company's sampling of water had suggested that all the leaking oil was coming to the surface, despite several reports that underwater plumes were stretching for miles.
Rep. Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said Monday that he had sent a letter to Hayward requesting documentation to substantiate his claims.
"BP in this instance means 'Blind to Plumes.' " Markey said.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.