Why It's So Tough To Stop The Gulf Oil Leak

Oil In Gulf Of Mexico i i

hide captionA boat makes its way through crude oil that has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Oil In Gulf Of Mexico

A boat makes its way through crude oil that has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

More than a week after an explosion destroyed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, thousands of gallons of oil continue to flow into the Gulf. The blast killed eleven workers, and created one of the largest oil spills in U.S. waters.

As investigators search for the cause of the explosion, crews work around the clock to stop the flow of oil and contain the slick. Some of the oil may be set on fire to prevent a larger catastrophe and damage to the U.S. coastline.

David Biello, associate editor of energy and environment at Scientific American, explains the origins of the of the oil leak, why it's so difficult to stop, and the tools used to clean it up.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Last week's oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico took the lives of 11 workers and spawned one of the largest oil spills in U.S. waters. As much as 200,000 gallons a day may be gushing through a ruptured wellhead. And today, we learned it could take as long as 90 days to fix it.

With the leading edge of the oil slick expected to hit the Mississippi Delta area sometime tomorrow, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency. At the White House, President Obama said today he will utilize every single available resource at our disposal, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano promised an all-out response.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): Last night, BP alerted us to additional oil leaking from their deep underwater well. They are working with our support to estimate the size of this breach. As has just been mentioned, the president has urged, out of an abundance of caution and mindful of new and evolving information, that we must position resources to continue to confront this spill.

That being said, we have been anticipating and planning, and today, I will be designating that this is a spill of national significance.

CONAN: Crews continue to work around the clock to stop the flow of oil and contain the slick, but how did this happen in the first place? Aren't there safety valves to close the pipes if there's a break? And why is it so hard to plug this leak?

If you have questions on the nuts and bolts of the oil spill, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Biello joins us now from Scientific American in New York City, where he is associate editor of energy and environment. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. DAVID BIELLO (Associate Editor, Environment and Energy, Scientific American): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what do we know about the spill today we did not know yesterday?

Mr. BIELLO: Well, we know it's leaking five times as much oil as you mentioned in your opener there. It's up to about 200,000 gallons a day. To put that into perspective, the Exxon Valdez was, in total, about 10 million gallons. So it'd take a couple of months of leaking at this rate to catch up to that disaster.

And the last kind of deepwater oil rig spill like this happened back in 1979, 1980 off the coast of Mexico. And before they were able to cap that one - and it took almost a year to do so - it spilled 140 million gallons.

CONAN: Wow. And they're saying maybe three months more for this?

Mr. BIELLO: Yeah. All the, let's say, permanent solutions take a lot of time to do. And those permanent solutions range from drilling a new well to kind of intersect the existing well and get the oil flowing in a different direction rather than spilling directly into the Gulf, to putting a dome or a cap over the wellhead to, you know, block off the oil.

CONAN: Here's an email question we got from Tom(ph) in Fairbanks, Alaska. The blowout protectors did not work on the Gulf rig or the Timor Sea rig. They are touted as the reason offshore rigs are supposedly so safe. How are they supposed to work? Is there any reason to think they are generally effective? And tell us what a blowout protector is.

Mr. BIELLO: Yeah, they're actually called blowout preventers. And as the name implies, they're intended to avoid exactly this circumstance. At the moment when the pipe that connects the oil well to the rig at the top of the ocean -remember, this is 5,000 feet down, so we're talking almost a mile and a half -when that blows out, this set of valves and it's, I believe, four in total, at least one of them is supposed to close and choke off the oil so that you don't get a spill.

CONAN: This happens automatically?

Mr. BIELLO: It's supposed to happen automatically. Obviously, that did not happen in this case. Like I said, there are multiples of these valves so they're supposed to be fail-safes for fail-safes. None of those have worked. And even though there are kind of robotic subs down there working on this blowout preventer and pumping fluid in - these are hydraulic valves, so, you know, it's the pressure of the oil that actually causes it to close. And they're pumping fluid into these valves in an attempt to close them off. And it's still not working.

There are about 4,000 rigs like this out there. And many of them have these blowout preventers. And blowout preventers have worked in the past - haven't worked this time, so this is a big technology failure, a big one.

CONAN: Is this kind of valve state of the art? Are there better ones, newer ones that some people are using that weren't in place in this rig?

Mr. BIELLO: This is pretty much state of the art. I mean, there are some improvements, but it's - ultimately, even though it's big, 450 tons, it's pretty simple technology. I mean, all you're trying to do is put a cap over the well if something - if a worst-case scenario ensues. Unfortunately, in this case, those hydraulic valves failed, for whatever reason.

And it could be the pressure of the surrounding ocean. It could be particular circumstances of this blowout. Remember, we still don't fully understand what caused this accident in the first place. We don't know why the rig exploded, killing the 11 workers.

CONAN: And the - as I understand it, BP was leasing this rig, is that a common arrangement?

Mr. BIELLO: That is a common arrangement. What is less common, and, I guess, speaks to BP's confidence in the blowout preventer, is to not carry disaster insurance. Unfortunately for BP, they are now, kind of, on the hook for the full cost of this cleanup, which now involves the military, which has now become a spill of national significance, meaning that oil spill prevention boats and whatnot from all around the country will be coming to this area to help contain the spill.

And by the time this is over, it's going to be a pretty hefty price tag. Just drilling the extra well alone, the one that's going to, kind of, intersect the original well and choke off the supply of oil, it's hundreds of millions of dollars.

CONAN: And the White House did say today, that indeed, they were planning to pass the bill directly along to BP. This is not going to be the taxpayer who picks it up.

Mr. BIELLO: That's right. I mean, we'll see how that plays out long-term. But BP is on the hook for - if not all, a big chunk.

CONAN: They just reported very good first-quarter profits. I suspect the second quarter may not be so good.

Mr. BIELLO: Yeah. And I - I don't know if those profits are going to be enough to kind of eat up the cost of this kind of spill.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We're talking with David Biello, associate editor of energy and environment at Scientific American. If you have nuts-and-bolts questions about this oil spill, give us a call. We'll start with Doyle(ph), Doyle with us from Reno, Nevada.

DOYLE (Caller): Hi. Thanks very much for taking my call. Curious - I haven't really heard what the depth of this is. I assume it's relatively deep because of the use of robots.

CONAN: David Biello just told us, I think, 5,000 feet below.

Mr. BIELLO: That's right.

DOYLE: Right. Is the weight of the robots such that they might be able to push on the pipe and crimp the pipe to reduce the flow?

CONAN: Is that an option, David?

Mr. BIELLO: The riser, because of the pressure and the lengths - and we don't have a good picture of, kind of, how much of the riser is left. The riser is the pipe that, again, connects the wellhead and the rig at the surface of the water.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BIELLO: So that's 5,000 feet long. Part of the reason that they had underestimated the spill is that they hadn't found all the leaks in that riser. So the pressure of the oil and the length of the riser make it kind of difficult for these relatively small robotic subs to choke it - choke it off, as it were.

CONAN: Are these...

Mr. BIELLO: A better approach is to get the blowout preventer to work as it should.

CONAN: Are these blowout preventers near the top or near the bottom?

Mr. BIELLO: They're at the bottom. They're right there at the wellhead, so it's basically the cap on the well, and it's supposed to, like I said, kick in the instant that, you know, that kind of the riser disconnects or blows out.

CONAN: Doyle?

DOYLE: Great. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. And the - another part of this, so depending on where that riser, that long pipe from the wellhead at the bottom - the floor of the Gulf of Mexico going all the way up to the surface - depending on where that oil is gushing out of, does that depend on where it flows to? Does it rise to the surface? Does it flow underneath the surface?

Mr. BIELLO: Yeah. That, I mean, that does have an impact. Again, you could, you know, theoretically, if the entire riser was intact and there was, say, a leak right at the blowout preventer and a leak 5,000 feet away and the bottom of the surface, you'd end up with different oil patches on the surface. But, ultimately, what we see is an 1,800-square-mile big oil patch, so all of the leaks are kind of flowing together, and they will hit the coast in short order unless something is done.

And, obviously, a lot of efforts are being taken to prevent that from happening, ranging from, you know, booms and skimmers. These are ships that are, kind of, herding the oil together and then scooping it out of the water; to the Coast Guard, yesterday, actually set it on fire to see if that might help cut down on the amount of oil that ultimately ends up hitting the shore and hitting some of the - and this has been less discussed - the deep water reefs and other significant ecosystems in the area.

CONAN: And, by the way, our colleagues at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED tonight are going to be focusing on the potential environmental damage, so stay tuned to an NPR station to get more details on that. Here's an email - it's untitled - the Wall Street Journal reported this morning, this well did not have a, quote, remote-control shut off switch that may be used in other countries to prevent these kinds of major spills. It's called an acoustic switch. Are you familiar with that technology and how does it work?

Mr. BIELLO: Basically, it responds to acoustic signals and attempts to engage the blowout preventer when something like this happened, assuming that the blowout preventer wasn't kind of triggered by the action of the well explosion itself. Those are available in other countries, but again it's actually kind of a bell and whistle, if you will. It's nice to have, obviously, in a situation like this. But, theoretically, the fact that you have four valves in this blowout preventer that respond to hydraulic pressure, they should kick in. They should have kicked in. And it will be interesting to see what prevented them from kicking in.

CONAN: We're talking with David Biello again of Scientific American. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Margie(ph), Margie with us from Portland.

MARGIE (Caller): Yes. I'm wondering - can you hear me?

CONAN: Yeah. You're on the air. Go ahead.

MARGIE: I'm wondering if there's any chance that beginning to drill a release well maybe should have happened earlier than it seems to be happening, and whether a neutral adviser who had no interest in saving money for the company might have been able to make that decision at an earlier time than BP executives would make it, because of the high costs.

Mr. BIELLO: Yeah, that's a tough one for me to answer without kind of internal BP meeting-minutes kind of thing. But it seems to me, from the outside, that BP has pretty much instantly decided that drilling another well is the way to go. The problem is you have to get a drilling rig into place and start the drilling. These are not, again, it's 5,000 feet down. It's not kind of simple. And they're also trying to do something pretty difficult, which is intersect an existing well with a new well.

Typically, when you're drilling, you're just drilling down into the resource, which is a much bigger kind of target to hit than an existing well. Whether it could've been done faster or if rigs could've been mobilized faster, is tough to say at this point. I think, certainly, all due speed has been taken by everybody involved with this, especially as the kind of scale of this has become more visible, from space and everywhere else.

CONAN: And Margie's question has another implied question in it. Who's in charge here? If the United States government says, you know, we think you should do plan A, can BP say, no, we're doing plan B?

Mr. BIELLO: Well, now, the U.S. government is in charge. BP was in charge, but now that it's a spill of national significance, the U.S. government will kind of take control.

CONAN: And that's a term of art. That's like declaring a national disaster or so.

Mr. BIELLO: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BIELLO: And that just basically means all the nation's resources are mobilized to address this spill. I - it would be very unwise of BP to say, you know what, we don't like your plan, U.S. government, because the U.S. government is, of course, in charge of the leases that allow this deep-water oil exploration in the first place. And they were, as everybody knows, probably, the U.S. government have been opening up new offshore oil developments along the East Coast and elsewhere - that was announced last month.

CONAN: Margie, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is David(ph), David with us from Norfolk in Virginia.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, sir, doesn't this actually, write with the gentleman's comment. Shouldn't this put a little bit of a halt on drilling off the East Coast? You know, the Chesapeake Bay is unhealthy enough as it is. It has enough problems. And it looks to me, like, this accident - they talk about how safe drilling is and everything else, but it's kind of like skydiving. When you have an accident in skydiving, dead is dead.

CONAN: Yeah. David, I think there was a statement by a senior official at the Interior Department today, that said they may put a halt on all offshore drilling until it can be proven that these valves will work. But to his larger question, David Biello, what do you think?

Mr. BIELLO: Well, I - it certainly seems clear that, you know, even the White House press secretary has said this will have an impact. But at the same time, he said that we would go forward with offshore drilling. It remains to be seen. You might recall that back in 1969, there was a similar oil spill off the coast of California. That's the reason...

CONAN: Santa Barbara, yeah.

Mr. BIELLO: ...why we have a moratorium on oil drilling off the East Coast and the West Coast that existed until last month. It was a similar situation. You ended up with oil on the coast. It was a big disaster. We may see something similar. We may see a return of the moratoriums. Already, Democrats and Republicans from affected states have said that this is a major disaster and one that has either confirmed them in their opposition to offshore drilling, or caused them to question it.

CONAN: Finally, this email question from Robert in Visalia, California. Have there been situations where the blowout preventers worked correctly? What's the success rate?

Mr. BIELLO: Unfortunately, a lot of that is kind of confidential information. Most oil companies aren't going to tell you when they have a disaster if they don't have to report it. But there have been circumstances in the past where blowout preventers have worked. Certainly, they've been shown to work in the lab and they have worked in accidents in the past. Like I said, there are about 4,000 rigs out there. Everything doesn't always go smoothly. And this technology is needed to make sure that, you know, we don't end up with situations like this. That said, there have been two in the last 30 years, and both of them pretty big, nasty oil spills.

CONAN: David Biello, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. BIELLO: Sure.

CONAN: David Biello, associated editor of energy and environment at Scientific American, joined us from his offices in New York City. Much more on this later today, as we mentioned, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Tomorrow, on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, wind energy and the government's decision to allow Cape Wind to build turbines off the shore of Massachusetts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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