BP Pins Hopes On Capture After Top Kill, Cap Failed

BP's best hope for stopping the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had been the "top kill" maneuver, but that failed over the weekend. Other options, for actually capping the well, have been abandoned. That leaves a plan, which is in the works now, to capture the spewing oil rather than to keep it underground. NPR's Richard Harris talks with Renee Montagne about the latest containment efforts.

Renee Montagne: Is BP making progress now in this latest plan to capture the oil?

There is some progress, yes. The first and crucial step of this operation was cutting through the bent-over riser pipe on the seafloor, and they did the first big cut last night. You can think of that as sort of trimming off the end of a tree limb in order to make it easier to work with the rest of it. They're sort of left with the pipe stub, and now they want a nice clean cut on that stub, and the next step is to do that with a saw that uses a whirling wire coated with diamond cutting surfaces. ... Adm. Thad Allen updated us on the progress this morning [saying the saw blade became stuck inside the riser pipe during the second cut].

Presuming all of this works, they make the cut ... what happens then with the oil spewing out of this?

More will come through. Just the way when you unkink a garden hose more water comes through, somewhat more will come through here, and the question is how much more. Engineers believe most of what's stopping the flow of the oil is actually rubble that's down in the well and some of the junk inside the blowout preventer, so they're not expecting it to be an explosive increase. But BP says maybe it'll be a 10 percent increase. The federal government just looked at it and said more than likely it'll be a 20 percent increase in the flow of oil.

And how long will that go on — the flow and the increase?

That could go on for a day or two. That depends upon how quickly they can go forward with their plan. Once they get this nice clean cut, the next step is to try to install a collection attachment that has a big rubber gasket on it on top of where they've cut the pipe, and that's connected to a pipe that goes all the way up to the surface. And the hope is that most of the oil and gas will go into that pipe and they can offload it onto a ship.

How long is this system — which is makeshift — supposed to last?

This is a stopgap, and it's supposed to last until they can drill a new well, and that will be August at the earliest. The new well — it's called a relief well, but what it's really supposed to do is intersect with the bottom of the existing blown-out well, and if they can hit that well they can pump cement down there and permanently stop the oil inside that old well from flowing up anymore.

And there isn't just the one relief well — there's a second, backup relief well.

Right, in case the first one fails.

OK, so added to all of that, we are now in hurricane season. What happens if a storm roars through? Will they all have to stop doing what they're doing?

That is a major concern because that does interrupt oil and gas activities in the Gulf, and BP is working on plans about how to deal with that. If you do get the oil flowing up this 5,000-foot pipe to the surface, you may need to shut that down in the event of a big storm, so BP is planning to build a secondary system that would have a flexible pipe near the surface so a ship might be able to stay there during the storm and weather the wind and the waves and so on, but still would be able to stay there and collect the oil. Otherwise, it's spilling back into the gulf.

BP apparently has given up on all other plans. It's what they're doing now, right, and these relief wells, which are way down the line down through the summer. Why have they given up on other plans that would cap the well and actually just stop it from flowing?

Right. They did have an idea of putting a valve on top of the well or maybe another blowout preventer. But when they actually tried the top-kill method, they were collecting information about the condition of the well itself by looking at how much pressure it was withstanding, and it turns out they got very nervous about what the condition of the well was underground. It's encased in steel, but it appears like it could be very leaky down there. And so they were concerned about if they put a valve on, all that would do would be forcing the oil and gas out through the sides of the well, and that would be an even bigger mess than they have now; they wouldn't be able to control it through a pipe. So they've abandoned the effort to put a valve or another blowout preventer on, and they're just hoping that they can capture enough of the oil now and that they can also drill this relief well and put an end to it in August.

So this is a big learning experience in the middle of a huge disaster.

Yes, indeed.

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