BP To Rely On 'Junk' To Stop Spewing Oil

Oil is still flowing from a well in the Gulf of Mexico with about 210,000 gallons escaping per day. So far containment devices haven't been successful. Another plan involves injecting golf balls, knots of rope and shredded tires into the well to create a temporary clog to stop the flow of oil.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

BP has new plans to contain the oil spewing from a runaway well in the Gulf of Mexico. A hundred-ton funnel placed over the biggest leak didn't work, so the oil company is moving on to alternatives. One actually involves injecting golf balls, knots of rope and shredded tires into the well in an effort to prevent it from spewing out of the broken pipe on the seafloor.

NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris is with us now to talk about this and other plans. Nice to have you here.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good to be here.

NEARY: And I know that you are going to help us understand what's going on with those golf balls and shredded tires. But first, remind us of the original plan to stop the oil.

HARRIS: Well, the original plan seemed a lot tamer, I agree. They hired a company to build this massive steel funnel and they lowered it carefully over the leaking pipe. And the idea was that the oil that was leaking up out of this broken pipe would go into the funnel and up to the surface through a pipe. But unfortunately the oil, when it got into the funnel, also reacted. There's natural gas in that oil and it reacted - turned to ice, literally ice, methane ice in that funnel, and it clogged it almost immediately.

So they very quickly said this is not going to work. They gave up on it. BP chief executive Tony Hayward talked with NPR about this yesterday.

Dr. TONY HAYWARD (Chief Executive Officer, British Petroleum): Clearly the larger dome didn't work over the weekend. We've moved on to deploy a smaller containment device, which we're referring to as a top hat, which we'll be deploying over the next 72 hours or so.

HARRIS: And this new device is similar in concept but it's only four feet in diameter and five feet tall - much, much smaller - and it will be bolted directly to the end of a pipe that comes down from a ship.

NEARY: Well, how is this smaller device an improvement exactly?

HARRIS: Well, the hope is that it will fit snugly enough over the gushing pipe so that the methane gas in there will have less of a chance to contact seawater and to turn to ice. And they also plan to pump a chemical called methanol into it, since this can actually help prevent methane ice from forming.

Now, the downside is that BP says it can't scoop up as much oil as the original giant funnel could have. So there will still probably be oil coming up to the surface - both from this leak and most certainly from a second underwater leak.

NEARY: All right. So we're talking about a partial solution. What's the latest thinking about how to bring this spill to a complete halt?

HARRIS: Well, that involves another plan which attacks the oil where it really first comes up from the seabed. And that would be a device called the blowout preventer, which obviously didn't live up to its name in this case. It's a giant valve that sits on the seafloor at the top of the pipe at that wellhead. And it was supposed to close and it seems to have closed but only partially, which is why oil is still flowing through it.

So Tony Hayward from BP says that's the target of the next intervention.

Dr. HAYWARD: And what we're doing is lining up to pump material into it to seal it, something that is referred as a top kill or junk shot.

HARRIS: Junk shot is a funny term but it actually describes the plan pretty well. Basically, there are a couple of tubes that connect to the blowout preventer that are below this partially closed valve. And the idea is to pump junk into that space - literally a mix of golf balls, rope knots, bits of tire and so on - and the idea is to create a temporary clog to stop the flow of oil.

If they can just for a few minutes create that temporary clog, they can then kill the flow permanently by pumping down heavy drilling mud, which could hold back the oil and gas. And then after that they can pump in cement to seal off the well permanently.

NEARY: And that sounds almost desperate. Can it - will it work?

HARRIS: Well, BP says it has worked in blowouts in other circumstances, including in Kuwait after the Gulf War there. But like everything else, nobody has tried this at a depth of 5,000 feet where everything has to be done by robots and there's a great deal of water pressure. So BP hadn't tried this before, 'cause they were also a little bit worried that it could even make matters worse and increase the flow of oil from the seafloor. But they've been looking at the valve and they're less concerned about that now.

NEARY: Through all of this, BP's been saying they don't even really know how much oil's coming out of the well.

HARRIS: That's true. It's an estimate based on how much is on the surface. We keep talking about 5,000 barrels a day, but that's a pretty wild guess, actually. And oceanographer Ian McDonald, at Florida State University, says it could be actually five times as much as that. He's also frustrated because neither the Coast Guard or BP has released videos of the underwater gusher. And he says if he could actually see what those videos look like, there are methods for estimating oil coming out of it.

But again, the videos are not forthcoming. So we know less than we might, actually, about how much oil is spilling into the Gulf.

NEARY: NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris. Thanks for being with us.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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