Top Kill Fails; Oil Continues To Gush

Oil will continue gushing into the Gulf of Mexico until later this week at the very least. That's because BP's "top kill" strategy for stopping the leak didn't work. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR Science correspondent Richard Harris.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Oil will continue to gush into the Gulf of Mexico until later this week at the very least. The top kill method didn't work. Yesterday evening, the oil company BP said it was giving up on the mud-pumping procedure and preparing to move down its list of other ideas. President Obama issued a statement saying the ongoing spill is as enraging as it is heartbreaking.

NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us now. And, Richard, BP initially sounded pretty optimistic about top kill. The chief executive said there was a 60 to 70 percent chance that it would work. Do you know why it failed?

RICHARD HARRIS: No, I don't really know why it failed. But I do know that BP made three attempts at this. And the idea was to try to pump this really heavy fluid called drilling mud down the hole faster than stuff was coming up. And they pumped 30,000 barrels of this stuff in their three attempts, a huge amount of mud. And essentially, all of it was squirted right back out and onto the surface of the seafloor.

And so, obviously the well is moving really, really fast. The holes in the riser pipe and other places are obviously pretty big. And I actually heard one engineer describe it as trying to stop the flow of a fire hydrant by trying to blast a fire hose into the fire hydrant. So you kind of understand what they were up against. And it just didn't work.

HANSEN: Okay, so in terms of other ideas, what's the next one?

HARRIS: Well, the next one is actually a pretty tricky procedure, which is why it's going to take at least four days to even give it a go. The next thing they're going to do is take these mini robotic submarines down there and chop off the end of this pipe that's been sticking up out of the end of the blowout preventer, this thing that's bent over. And sometimes in the videos you can see very rapid jets of oil spewing out of those.

So that's going to be a tricky thing just to simply cut off that pipe as it goes. And there's a pipe inside that pipe, which will make it an even trickier operation. But presuming that they can get that cut off, actually, the first thing that's going to happen is there will be more oil flowing into the Gulf because that pipe and that kink is presumably slowing it down somewhat. We hope not too much more will come out, but we just don't know.

But once that's cut off, they're going to lower a device called the lower marine riser package onto the top of the spewing blowout preventer and that actually has a pipe that connects to the surface, to a ship on the surface. And they hope that eventually what they will be able to do is convey most of the oil up that pipe and onto the surface into a ship.

HANSEN: Hope is the operative word here, but how likely is that plan to work?

HARRIS: Well, you may recall, Liane, that the very first attempt to capture oil like this at the seafloor was with that giant thing called the cofferdam and that was a complete failure. The second effort was this little gizmo called the riser insertion tube, which they stuck into the end of the riser pipe where the oil was flowing out. That worked fitfully, but it really only captured a small fraction of the oil. We can hope that, you know, this the third try now, so we can hope that they've learned from trial and error.

HANSEN: It sounds that even if it works, appears to be a stopgap. Is it?

HARRIS: That's correct, yeah. They're continuing to drill the wells that they hope will eventually intersect with the very bottom of this well so they can pump in cement and ultimately kill it permanently. They still have to do that. They're also still talking about putting a valve on top of the blowout preventer, which is where this gizmo will sit. So they'd actually have to take it away to put the valve back on.

And, you know, that raises all sorts of other questions. If you actually have a somewhat successful way of capturing oil, do you take it away to try to do something better?

HANSEN: In the seconds we have left, Richard, the oil will keep pouring into the Gulf - what can they do about it?

HARRIS: Well, they can keep doing what they're doing - 1,400 vessels, 20,000 people out there, about 700 miles of boom. The strategy is to keep the oil as far from the shore as possible. And they've been doing that pretty well. But obviously, we know that there is some oil coming ashore.

NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Thank you.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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