BP Engineers Try To Plug Oil Leak

BP tries to insert a pipe to remove oil from a blown-out undersea oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and channel it to the surface, a company executive said.

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The unchecked oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has produced large tar balls that are now washing ashore in coastal Louisiana. To make matters worse, an NPR analysis indicates the leak is releasing at least 10 times more oil than BP and the government have estimated. But today, the Coast Guard said that doesn't change its response to the disaster.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: On Dauphin Island, Alabama, today, the man in charge of the government's response to the oil spill, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen, said no matter how much oil is leaking, the Coast Guard would be doing exactly what it is now.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard): We first thought it was a thousand barrels and then we thought it was 5,000 barrels. Frankly, whether it was one or five or 10 or 15, our mobilization of resources have been for something far beyond that because we're always prepared for a catastrophic event. So we have not been constrained in our planning, or our resources, or our tactics by the flow estimates.

ELLIOTT: But Democratic Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts is concerned. He chairs a House subcommittee on energy and the environment that is investigating the spill. Markey sent a letter to BP asking about the actual size of the flow. He asked if underestimating the flow may be impeding the ability to solve the leak.

BP has been working to shut the well for nearly three weeks now with no success. Oil is leaking from a riser pipe that once connected the well to the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Today, the company is trying to reduce the flow of oil with a method that's never been tried, according to Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles.

Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (Chief Operating Officer, British Petroleum): The concept is relatively simple. Take a piece of pipework with essentially a rubber sealing device and push it as far into this riser as we can so that we capture oil and not water and then bring that to surface. The challenge is deploying it in 5,000 feet where people can't work and we have to use machines to do that. So to my knowledge it hasn't been done before.

ELLIOTT: He says the company should know sometime tonight if inserting the tube works. If not, engineers would then place what's called a top hat over the main leak point to capture oil and divert it to a drilling ship.

Coast Guard Admiral Allen warns these techniques are not expected to completely stop the flow. Next week, BP will try to clog the well with a junk shot -injecting foreign objects like golf balls and rubber into the well's blowout preventer. But the best hope is a relief well that is still months from completion.

Allen says the company is doing all it can.

Adm. ALLEN: Well, in my view, BP has been relentless and we've been relentless in our oversight because we all understand the stakes here. This has never been done before. This is an anomalous, unprecedented event.

ELLIOTT: And it's changing, he says.

Adm. ALLEN: I don't believe any longer we have a large monolithic spill. You can see the perimeter and the trajectories, but I think based on when the oil comes up and the wind and the currents at the time, it's separating the different patches of oil on which you have open water between.

ELLIOTT: That's good and bad news, Allen says. It's harder to contain at sea but means the shoreline impact will come in smaller bits. And those bits are already surfacing. Louisiana wildlife officials say glossy globs - some as big as eight inches across - washed up in Port Fourchon today. Tar balls have also shown up on isolated beaches in Mississippi, Alabama and Northwest Florida.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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