BP Shifts Plan Back To Capturing Oil, Not Stopping It

BP gave up on its "top kill" approach Saturday and said it would move on to its next option — attempting to capture the oil leaking in the Gulf of Mexico rather than seal up the well. But that could temporarily increase the flow of oil. It's been 41 days since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank, and oil continues to pour into the waters.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

And for those counting the days since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, it's been 41 days now, and oil continues to pour into the waters. BP gave up on its top kill approach on Saturday and said it would move on to its next option. Thats an attempt to capture the leaking oil rather than to seal up the well. In the short term, at least, this could increase the flow of oil.

NPR's Richard Harris joins us right now to bring us up to date.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Good morning. So what exactly is this new strategy?

HARRIS: Well, it's called the Lower Marine Riser Package Strategy. And basically what they're doing is, they're sending unmanned mini subs down there, and they're going to chop off this 21-inch diameter pipe thats attached to the top of the blowout preventer. And thats a necessary step but it will no doubt increase the flow of oil into the gulf; it's not clear yet by how much. BP seems to think that most of the blockages are actually pretty far below ground, so they're actually saying probably won't be too much.

But they're removing this kinked pipe, and if the kink is holding back a lot of oil, we could actually see a substantial increase of oil into the gulf. So that remains to be seen.

But at any rate, once they cut off that pipe, they will lower this thing called the Lower Marine Riser Package on top. It's essentially a cap that they hope -form a loose seal with the top of the well, and it will start drawing the oil and gas up to the surface through a pipe. And they hope theyll then be able to capture it on a ship.

MONTAGNE: But we've already watched BP try to capture the oil. What makes the company think this time it will work?

HARRIS: Yeah, thats true. Theyve had two not really good successes. The first try was the coffer dam - this giant steel and concrete dome. That was a complete failure, essentially. The natural gas inside it turned to ice and immediately clogged it up. The second effort was this little riser insertion tube, just a four-inch pipe that they stuck in the end of this riser pipe thats belching oil. That did suck up some oil, but not that large a percentage.

So at least theyve now had two examples to learn from and so, you know, they're hopeful. You know, theyve worked out some of the kinks. Maybe this will work better, on the third try.

MONTAGNE: OK, so theyve already begun. How's it going?

HARRIS: Well, they said the procedure would take about four days. And actually, we haven't heard a word since. And so all I can say is we dont know how it's going. And I've been thinking about this a little bit cause, of course, we're all anxious for information. But we have to remember this isnt NASA. We're not watching a spacewalk; we're not watching a launch.

This is a company whose stock value rides up and down, depending upon the ebb and flow of events. So they have some business rationale for not telling us about every twist and turn thats going on. And in fact, they end up being sometimes rather stingy with information.

Ill relate a story to you. During the top kill procedure, we tried to figure out how this would work, because there's actually a pipe running through the middle of the blowout preventer that doesnt show up on any diagrams. But they keep talking about the pipe, and it's there.

So we asked, how is this going to work with the top kill? And their answer was, oh, it would take us to long to explain, so we won't - next question, essentially. This was at a press conference. So yeah, information does flow rather modestly at times, out of this operation. But, as I said, there are business rationales for doing it that way.

MONTAGNE: Well, Richard, if the current approach doesnt work, what do you know about what would be next?

HARRIS: Well, the ultimate solution - which we keep hearing about - is this relief well. They're actually drilling two in case one of them doesnt work. But the idea is, you drill a well all the way down to where the blowout happened - below the blowout, where the well blew up, essentially, at the very deep - under the rocks. And that would intersect with the existing well, and they would dump cement down to it and plug up that well, ultimately.

But that won't be ready till August. So the sense is, you know, do we really want to wait that long. BP does have a few other ideas in there. They might put another blowout preventer on top of the leaking blowout preventer, right now, for example, or just a valve up there.

But, you know, they're cautioning that whatever they're working on may not be a complete solution until that relief well gets in place.

MONTAGNE: Which is in theory, a complete solution.

HARRIS: That ought to be a complete solution. Yes.

MONTAGNE: OK. NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, thanks for joining us.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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