BP's 'Top Kill' Attempt To Plug Oil Leak Fails

BP says its effort to plug the gushing leak in the Gulf of Mexico with the so-called "top kill" technique has failed. BP's Doug Suttles said the company will try another option — cap the leak and pipe the oil to the surface. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce talks to host Guy Raz about the latest developments and explains what options might be next.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Since Wednesday, BP has been pumping heavy mud and other materials down into that underwater oil well in a bid to stop the leak. But today, the company admitted that effort has failed.

Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (Chief Operating Officer, British Petroleum): So after three full days of attempting top kill, we have been unable to overcome the flow from the well. So at this point, it's time to move to the next option.

RAZ: That's BP's Doug Suttles. Forty days after a drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil continues to spew into the water.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to talk about what's next.

Now, any sense of what went wrong?

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: BP's Doug Suttles was asked in a briefing, you know, why the top kill method hadn't worked. And he said they just didn't know. You know, they've tried different things, tried pumping things down and then monitored the situation and then tried other things. As you said, they spent days. And they now concluded today that the top kill method just is unlikely to stop this gushing well. And it's just time to move on to something else.

RAZ: So what is that something else?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, basically, what they're going to try is not to plug or stop the well, but try a new technique to try to collect the oil that's gushing out. So basically, they're going to use a robotic submarine to cut the leaking pipe at the top of this thing called the blowout preventer that failed.

And then over that cleanly cut pipe, they're going to install a kind of beanie cap. So they're sort of capping it. And there'll be a sort of seal. And the cap is connected to a pipe that goes up to a ship.

And so the idea is that instead of just spilling out into the sea, most of the oil would go up into the ship where it could be collected. But they said today that there's no guarantee that this will work.

RAZ: And how long would it take to put that cap in place?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They said that they already have the equipment in place on the seafloor. They've sort of been working this option in parallel, and they have different versions of the cap to try. And they think it could take four days to maybe a week.

RAZ: And just to clear, this is different from the other siphon operation that they've tried a few weeks ago, where they inserted a tube into the well, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. This would be a different approach.

RAZ: But this kind of cap wouldn't actually stop the oil from gushing out, right? It would just capture it?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. That's the idea is it would collect what BP hopes would be the majority of the oil as the company gets ready for the next attempt to actually stop the well from gushing out.

And for that, what they're thinking of doing is putting another blowout preventer on top of the original one that failed. And they'd get that equipment from a drilling rig that actually had been drilling one of two relief wells.

Yesterday, Doug Suttles said that they've actually stopped drilling that relief well so that they can start getting the rig's blowout preventer ready in case they want to put it on top of the old one.

RAZ: But they're still drilling the other relief well?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes, that work is ongoing and BP says it's on track. But that relief well - even though people think that's a really good shot at sort of stopping this flow - won't be ready for a couple of months. And unless they do something in the meantime, nothing's going to stop the oil from just coming out.

RAZ: Such a tragedy. That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

Nell, thank you so much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

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