BP Hopes 'Top Kill' Will Stop Oil Gusher

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BP will try again on Wednesday to plug the runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico by pumping heavy fluid into it. The tactic, called a "top kill," is a risky procedure — a failure could substantially increase the flow of oil into the sea. But if it succeeds, it will finally bring to an end a disaster now in its second month.

DAVID GREENE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

BP is hoping, today, to finally choke off the well thats been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for more than a month. We've been hearing about this particular method of tackling the leak, called top kill. A top kill essentially involves pumping mud down the well. There's a small risk it could actually make matters worse.

And for more, we're joined now by NPR's Richard Harris. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So if all does go well today, how will it work?

HARRIS: Well, BP now has an armada of ships on the surface and they are prepared to pump this super dense fluid called drilling mud all the way down to the bottom of the ocean, and through two very small pipes that run into the side of this broken blowout preventer.

Now, some of that mud will undoubtedly ooze back up onto the seafloor through the leaks that we've been watching in those pipes. But the hope is that if you can pump it fast enough, you can actually pump it down the well and pump it faster than the oil and gases coming up the well. And if you can do this, you essentially create a mud cork on the top of this well. And if they're successful, that will actually stop the flow.

MONTAGNE: So thats the aim, but if things dont go according to plan?

HARRIS: Well, a lot of people have been worried about that for a long time and it's one of the reasons that this procedure has taken so long to actually bear fruit, or for BP to prepare to try it. But basically they think that the risk is pretty low by now.

There are some chance that they could actually increase the rate of the leak. Or there are a couple of doomsday scenarios out there, in which you could actually seriously damage the blowout preventer and cause a much greater gusher down there. So unlikely, not impossible, and I think the federal government has been overseeing this and BP are pretty comfortable that thats not going to happen.

But just in case things dont go well, theyve got another device standing by on the seafloor. And it's designed to capture the flow from the oil. What they'd have to do though is cutoff this broken pipe thats coming off the top of the blowout preventer, sort of looks like a bent straw right now. They'd have to cut it off and then lower this device on top of it, and hope that they can capture the oil thats spilling out.

Theyve found obviously limited success thus far in capturing oil once it's leaking out onto the seafloor. But this is the third try. It might work better than the other tries theyve had.

MONTAGNE: Okay. But just the last thing with this top kill. May be it won't do damage. It's also possible it just plain won't work.

HARRIS: Thats true also. And then that device would be brought into play in a couple of days to try to capture the flow, while they think about what to do next. Or maybe simply just wait for the relief well to be drilled.

MONTAGNE: BP still says the oil well is only spilling about 5,000 barrels a day. Outside experts - and theyve told you this in your reporting - say many times more oil is spilling. Are there consequences today if BP's figures - if those figures are actually way off?

HARRIS: Well, BP does stick by its 5,000 barrel a day figure. But they also say there's wide uncertainty - they dont say exactly what the uncertainty is. But they say that their plans assume that there could be a lot worse. And so we assume theyve factored that in and that they have a pretty good idea. Theyve been measuring the pressure down there inside the blowout preventer, so thats the most important thing for them to figure whether they're likely to have a catastrophe.

But we also asked BP executive Doug Suttles last week, since they are standing by their number and sort of rejecting the work of this outside scientist, why dont they make their own scientific measurements? And obviously they have much more access to video and other important information. And here was his reply to that question.

Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (COO, BP America Inc.): We found it very, very difficult to measure this flow just from the video images. Now, it's possible that there going to be techniques that some people have that we were unaware of that will allow us to do it. And I think thats some the focus of this effort the federal government is launching.

HARRIS: Now, that effort is a committee that was assembled last week by the federal government, and after this week the persistent questions about how much oil actually is spilling out from the seafloor.

MONTAGNE: And whats the status of the federal investigation?

HARRIS: Well, this is called the Flow Rate Technical Team or Technical Group. And it was supposed to come up with at least a rough answer over the last weekend, but we actually haven't heard from them. What we have heard is over the weekend the government reconfigured it somewhat, they removed the scientist who was in charge and gave that job to Marcia McNutt, who's the head of the U.S. Geological Survey and a highly regarded scientist.

So she's not talking to us. We dont exactly know whats going on. But maybe we'll get some answers later this week, maybe next week. It's kind of up in the air.

MONTAGNE: Richard, just quickly. Will we be able to watch this top kill procedure as it happens, cause BP has a live feed right there from the bottom of the ocean?

HARRIS: They do. I was looking at it this morning. We're seeing some things from the bottom of the ocean but we aren't necessarily seeing the seat of the action.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Richard Harris.

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