BP's Fixes Fail, Oil Still Gushing Into Gulf

Guest

Richard Harris, science correspondent, NPR

BP's latest attempt to plug the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico failed. Next, they plan to cut the broken pipe and position a cap over the well-head to capture most, if not all, of the crude. If that fix fails, it may be months before the well stops polluting the waters of the Gulf.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

It's now six weeks since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven men on the rig died in the disaster, and oil from the ruptured wellhead continues to gush into the water, despite several attempts to plug it or cap it.

In the latest effort, BP hopes to cut the broken pipe and fit a cap over it to capture much of the crude. It won't get it all, and there's a risk it could make the problem worse - at least temporarily. BP acknowledges it may be two months or more before relief wells provide a permanent solution.

In the meantime, oil continues to flow onto shore, Louisiana hit, by far, the worst, but there's damage reported now in Mississippi and Alabama, and oil is reported less than 10 miles from the coast of Florida. Big swaths of the Gulf are closed to fishing, and we know little about the effects of all that oil in the water.

If you have questions about what's worked and what hasn't, what's next for BP, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the disconnect between the facts - crime dropped again last year down to levels not seen since the 1960s - and belief. Three-quarters of us tell pollsters that crime is worse than ever.

But first, the disaster in the Gulf. NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris joins us here in Studio 3A. And Richard, it's always nice to have you with us.

RICHARD HARRIS: And nice to be back.

CONAN: And I know you've spent most of your time watching the video from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

HARRIS: I have been watching that a fair amount, yes. It's sort of - it's alternatively soothing and frightening.

CONAN: And what can you tell us about this latest effort? As we've heard, a saw has been stuck, apparently.

HARRIS: Yes, they have been trying to cut through a pipe. It's one thing - when you're watching the video, it's hard to get a sense of scale. But remember, the pipe they're cutting through looks small on the TV screen or on the Web, but actually, it's 21 inches across. It's a huge pipe, and they're trying to cut through this with a saw that's essentially a piece of wire that is studded with diamond cutting objects on it.

And they started last night to try to cut through this, and the saw got stuck at some point. Anyone who's done home carpentry is familiar with this problem. But the stakes are much higher, obviously, and the solutions are much harder when you're at 5,000 feet below sea level.

So last I saw, it looked like they managed to use one of these robotic mini-subs to yank the saw out of its - out of where it was stuck, but that means that there's no progress cutting right now, as far as I can tell.

CONAN: And as I understand it, mostly from listening to you this morning, I think they're trying to get a clean cut, nice and flat on this pipe, and that they would fit, basically, well, a valve over it.

HARRIS: Right. Well, it's sort of the end - you can almost think of it as the end of a hose, only it's made of steel instead of rubber. What they want to do is have - ideally, if they can make a nice flat cut along this pipe, then they could put a rubber gasket on top of that, in between that and this big pipe that's going to take the oil - they hope - and the gas up to the surface.

And so they really wanted a nice, clean cut in order to be able to capture a lot of the oil. If they get a sort of jagged cut, they can still put something over it, but it won't - it's not likely to have a nice, clean seal, and they might get seawater coming in. That would be a real pain because the seawater reacts with the methane that's mixed in with the oil, and that causes ice crystals, and as we may recall, that was the cause of the failure of the very first attempt to capture some of the oil, the so-called containment dome that they put down, and that totally didn't work because of these ice crystals forming.

CONAN: Well, it was first that containment dome, and then there was the so-called top hat, which was a smaller containment dome. That didn't work, either.

HARRIS: Well, they actually never got around quite to the top hat. What they did instead was they put in a little something they called the riser insertion tube, which actually was moderately successful. It was a small tube that actually goes into the 21-inch pipe where the oil was spewing out, and it essentially was drawing oil up to the surface.

And that was working reasonably well. I mean, they were getting thousands of barrels a day on average up that pipe, but still, as we know, that turns out to be a very small percentage of the amount of oil that was spewing out. So it was better than nothing, but it was still not - it was certainly not a solution, by any stretch of the imagination.

CONAN: And all of that being pumped into - what? Presumably, a tanker.

HARRIS: Yeah, they had a tanker at the surface. The natural gas would be burned off - actually, flared is the word they use. But basically, they would just incinerate it when it reaches the surface just to get it out of the way.

CONAN: Because it - get it out of the way, and it makes life a lot easier. In the meantime, then, the major effort that we heard about all along was the top kill, where they tried to pump heavy mud and then eventually cement down into the wellhead itself. And that, too, failed.

HARRIS: That was a - yeah, that was a disaster. It didn't work at all. They tried three times, and the hope was that, you know, we've got this oil and gas rushing up at a very high speed from very deep underground, under great pressure. And they thought, well, if we could pump hard enough, we could pump cement - well, first of all, this heavy mud, which is actually sort of a mixture of clay and materials and other chemicals.

Maybe we could pump it down enough so that we could essentially fill the well with this really heavy stuff and stop the stuff from coming up. But the reality was there were enough holes above that basically, as they tried to pump it in, it just was blown right out the top of the well. And so they essentially were unsuccessful.

It was something like 30,000 barrels of this stuff they pumped down, and one presumes that, essentially, most of that ended up just on the sea floor, blown out by the onrushing oil and gas.

And in the course of doing that, unfortunately, what they realized in doing the testing that was surrounding that was that the well wasn't nearly in as good shape as they had thought, and so they had been hoping, well, the next step could have been - or another step could have been to put a valve on top of the well to stop the oil from flowing out.

But they realized the well is actually in such bad shape, if you put a valve on top, it might - the entire well might sort of explode. Think of it as a soda bottle that is building up so much pressure that yeah, you can cap it, but then you risk having the sides of the bottle blow out.

And so they decided that's - we better not do that. We better essentially just try to capture the oil that's coming out and wait patiently until BP is able to drill this relief well to pump cement to the bottom of the well and finally block it from the bottom, not from the top.

CONAN: And that also speaks to the actual formation itself. We think of, well, tapping a reservoir of oil and gas deep within the rock. This is under tremendous pressure. Once you poke a hole in it, it's shooting out that hole. You don't pump it up to the surface. It comes up all by itself.

HARRIS: Certainly, initially, that is true. And for - it could be for many, many months that this would just continue to come out on its own pressure because partly, the natural gas is down there, and it wants to expand as it starts to move up. So that sort of impels things up towards the surface. It's also true that the reservoir's just under pressure, and it's under all the pressure of the water and the rock and so on.

So there's a lot of forces pushing on it, and so that's true. You can't just sort of - you don't want to wait this thing out, because you'd have to wait a really long time.

CONAN: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, here with us in Studio 3A. If you have questions about various approaches or techniques to plug the darn hole, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Nathan's on the line from Ann Arbor.

NATHAN (Caller): Yeah, hi. Richard might have just answered my question, but my original thought would be, like, just the analogy to the garden hose. When you lose the end of your hose, the first thing you do is you kink the pipe over on itself so that you shut off the flow, and then you try to reattach a valve or something on the end.

I was under - I was trying to figure out why they hadn't tried that, but maybe it was because of the back-pressure and the condition of the well. Is that correct?

HARRIS: Yeah, I think initially, that was an idea that was kicking around, at least in the public sphere, and they never were very enthusiastic about it. And then when they discovered what the condition of the well was, they realized that actually might be a really bad idea. So that's correct. Yeah.

NATHAN: Okay. Appreciate it. Thank you.

CONAN: Nathan, thanks very much. Are there - we heard the president say at his news conference last week that, you know, BP is open to ideas, and, in fact, are there things being done that - are there things that could be done that aren't being done? He said no. They're doing all they can, that he was pretty confident about that. Is that confidence well-placed?

HARRIS: Well, there are certainly many, many ideas out there, and I certainly hear individually from people who have notions. Some of them are very thoughtful, and some of them are a little bit wacky, but there is certainly no shortage of ideas out there.

I think what we have seen is a very large team of experts who are getting together on this. It's not just BP, but BP has recruited - very willingly, I'm sure - many, many of the other people from the industry because, of course, it's not just BP that's at risk here. The whole future of deep-sea oil drilling could be at stake.

And so companies - all sorts of companies have put their best people out there to volunteer to be part of this process. I heard there are actually a couple thousand people who are involved in various levels of consultation, including hundreds of people who are organized by the U.S. Department of Energy - Steven Chu, who is our Nobel laureate energy secretary, and he's brought together a bunch of people both from national labs and from academia, and so on. So there are many, many, many people with a lot of experience offering their advice and counsel here. And so...

CONAN: How many of them are in the room when the decisions get actually made, though?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Yeah, well, I don't know. But, I mean, clearly, the decisions are not made unilaterally by BP. They are made in consultation with the federal government, and the federal government is listening to its experts, we hope. They certainly ask them to participate. So one assumes that they're paying attention to what they're hearing. So it is a very collaborative effort.

CONAN: What do we know about the process of problem-solving at BP? How far ahead do they plan their maneuvers?

HARRIS: Well, this is another thing that I think has been an intelligent plan, even though the idea...

CONAN: Has not worked yet. Definitely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Yeah. But the idea is you don't just say, well, we'll try this one thing and see if it works, and if it doesn't, go on to the next thing. They've been planning way down the line. So even though when they were planning this big containment dome idea, they already had two or three other plans in the works lined up. And they were thinking okay, if that doesn't work, what do we do?

And so they're - up until now, really, there has been a long list of things that, you know, well, if it doesn't work, we can back up and try this. That list got pretty badly pruned back once they realized that they really couldn't cap off the well because of the pressure concerns. So some of their ideas about capping have just been put aside for now.

But it has been - it's been a thoughtful process to do that, including realizing very early on that you'd better start drilling a relief well because that's the most assured solution you have to the problem. The federal government turned around and said, oh, don't just do one. You should drill a second one in case the first one fails.

And so - because there was a probability of hitting difficult drilling or, you know, having all sorts of troubles anytime you're drilling in this amount of water and in this depth of rock below the water. So that's, you know, so that's thinking ahead, also.

CONAN: Let's get Jay on the line, Jay with us from Phoenix.

JAY (Caller): Yes, hello. Yes, my suggestion - I've had this for three weeks -is why we can't have a huge crane lower a huge boulder on top of the thing? And I would believe it would work the first time. We can pretty well estimate the size of the crater by the photography we have. And God knows, I'm sure the Earth will produce us a boulder that'll fit on top of that mess. And then, you know, if it doesn't work, we'll pull it off. But if it does, cover it with boulders. And thank God, we can cut our losses. And my other suggestion...

CONAN: Well, Jay, why don't we take one at a time? Richard, and (unintelligible) supposed to be...

HARRIS: Well, I think there - I mean, there are - I mean, that is somewhat of a version of putting - of the cofferdam that they tried to put on top at first, and they found very quickly it didn't work. One of the problems is the sea bed - we don't think about this very much, but the sea bed is actually mud for about 1,000 feet from the surface down.

So, actually, just thinking about things, you have to ask: If you put something on top, then at what point will the oil and gas just simply go around, into the mud? And the often - the answer is that's, you know, pretty likely. So that's not as good a solution as it might seem.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR science correspondent Richard Harris about options still on the table to stop the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. If you have questions about what's worked, what hasn't and what's next, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. More of your questions in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

A brief timeline of the efforts to contain the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico: On April 25th, five days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the first underwater attempts to activate the blowout preventer failed. By May 2nd, BP started work on a pair of new relief wells. Those are expected to be done maybe in August.

On the seventh, BP lowered a containment dome onto the wellhead. It plugged with slush and ice and failed. BP did succeed to insert a tube into the leaking well 10 days later and started to siphon off some of the leaking crude.

Last week's top kill attempt, of course, did not work, and that brings us to today's latest effort to saw off the broken pipe and place a cap on top to siphon off the oil at the source until the relief well is finished.

If you have details about what's worked, what happens, if you have questions, rather, about what's worked and what hasn't and what's next, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Richard Harris is with us, NPR science correspondent, who's been following this story gamely, glued to the TV set, watching the video from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Michael(ph) emails from Hummelstown in Pennsylvania: We've seen BP try various methods that have all failed. Now they're attempting another technique that may fail, but this time, the technique carries the risk that oil flow could actually increase.

Given their previous track record, why are they taking this risk? Is there information we do not have?

HARRIS: Well, it is true that the flow could increase. BP figures that the flow might increase by 10 percent. The federal government actually got some independent scientists together to say what do you think, and the independent scientists said, well, the flow could actually increase by 20 percent in the course of doing that.

That's because you're chopping off a pipe that has a kink in it. You are relieving a little bit of the pressure that may be holding the oil down in the well, and so yes, that is a real concern.

But the feeling is there's nothing else you could really do right now other than take a little bit of a risk, and the payoff could be significant. If they can capture most of the oil with this system, and that's a big if, but if they can do that, they will have really helped slow the flow tremendously. And, you know, at the rate that it's going into the ocean right now, which is anyplace between 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day or possibly considerably more than that, even, it's it seems as though the collective wisdom, both from BP and the federal government and so on, is it's a risk worth taking.

CONAN: And what are the other risks that are involved? You talked about if they just blocked it up initially, there's a fear that the whole well could implode or explode, in fact.

HARRIS: Yes, that's right. And the other concern with this system is, even if it's up and operating, let's not forget hurricane season started yesterday. And imagine that you have a ship on the surface collecting oil coming out, and you have a hurricane, you may not be able to leave that ship there. So they're actually working on a contingency plan that would allow the system to be flexible enough that it could actually ride out a hurricane.

That's, I mean, that's a tall order, but BP is working on that, and the federal government again is pushing them and prodding and saying okay, how far can we go with this.

CONAN: Let's get Bob(ph) on the line, Bob calling from Sorrento in Florida. Bob, are you there? I think Bob has left us. So instead, let's see if we can go to this is Doug(ph), Doug with us from Nevada City in California.

DOUG (Caller): Hey, guys, how's it going? My main concern is that one of the methods of control that BP is using is dispersant. And I find that I don't understand the reasoning for that, in that the hurricane season is coming, essentially dispersant is emulsifying the oil into the water. I don't see the reason behind that at all.

HARRIS: Yeah, well, it's a good question. A lot of people have been asking about that, and in fact, BP was asked to scale back its use of dispersants rather significantly.

I will say that the federal government has told BP to go ahead and use dispersants right now, as more oil deep under the sea as more and more oil is going out during this current operation. And it is clearly a tradeoff, because oil, when it gets to the surface, if it gets into the marshes and so on, that does really, really bad damage, ecological. The belief is that...

CONAN: And if you disperse it below, it probably won't do that?

HARRIS: It is you'll get less at the surface, and you will get and so you'll get less of this really obvious damage. That has, obviously, PR benefits for people who are concerned about watching the oil wash up on the shores, and that is an element to it. But it is also true that the marsh damage is demonstrably really bad ecologically.

They have much less information about what damage oil does when it remains underwater. Obviously, the Gulf of Mexico is a large body of water. It does get eventually diluted out. And so, remember the old slogan: the solution to pollution is dilution? We know that's not exactly true, but at least the thought and hope is maybe this would mitigate it somewhat.

But it is a very big concern, not only because you're leaving the water under there, but the dispersant itself is toxic and could be causing damage, as well.

So it's a tradeoff, and it's both biological and political, frankly, that - the balance that they strike with that.

DOUG: Yeah, yeah, and essentially, you're just postponing the effect. It's going to be more easily taken up the Gulf Stream and around you know, I mean, everyone knows what the end of that loop is.

HARRIS: Right, although oil will eventually, over the long run, it will degrade. There are bacteria that eat oil and so if you leave it out in the Gulf, there is more time for the organisms to work on it, and it causes, you know, less obvious damage, let's put it that way, than if you'd let it wash ashore.

CONAN: Doug, thanks very much.

DOUG: Thank you.

CONAN: We have an email from Rohamma(ph) in San Francisco on exactly that last point. Why aren't we hearing any discussion of bioremediation? Oil-eating bacteria and enzymes have been used successful in other spills in Texas. Why aren't they being used in the Louisiana wetlands and on the beaches?

HARRIS: Well, I don't actually know to what extent they are being used. I think the Gulf is full of oil-eating bacteria. So we have nature working for us a little bit, although they are you know, this is an overwhelming amount of oil, compared to the natural seeps that these organisms are used to eating.

So that's a good question. I don't really know to what extent bioremediation is, in fact, being put into use.

CONAN: Let's hear from Al(ph). Al's with us from Des Moines.

AL (Caller): Hello, good afternoon. I listen to the BBC a lot late, late at night, and a couple of nights ago, a caller seemed knowledgeable, he suggested a powerful explosive being put at the wellhead on the Gulf floor.

And he said Russia had done this four times. He seemed knowledgeable. I'm just relating what he said. And this powerful explosive went off, and it shut off the well.

And he opined, however, that that of course destroys the drill hole and the millions that have gone in it and makes a non-producing well that's been drilled. But the explosive shut it off.

And you mentioned a little bit ago, about a thousand feet of mud. That may change the thought altogether, but what do you think of the idea of a powerful explosive, like a 1,000-pound aerial bomb being put down there and set off at the top of the well?

CONAN: It would be a depth charge at that point, but yes.

HARRIS: Yeah, the mud is certainly I mean, there are many issues here, one of which is the mud clearly would be a real problem, I think, for an explosive to be effective. I'm just making this up as I go along, to tell you the truth. I would think you'd have to explode it in rock, not in mud, because you and I think that but I also think more to the point, you know, explosives have been used in the West successful to control blowouts, but it's usually just to blow out the fire.

If you have a huge fire going, an explosive actually consumes all the oxygen that's fueling the fire for an instant, and the fire goes out, and then you can get in, and you can fix it.

CONAN: This is how they put out some of the fires in Kuwait after the first Gulf War.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

CONAN: Indeed, they also used jet engines from MiG-21s to blow out the fire, but I don't think that would work a mile below the surface.

HARRIS: Probably not, and I think I mean, I've asked around a little bit about the possibility of using explosives. It's an idea that's been floating around.

But nobody seems to think that this is a sensible idea, because for one thing, if it doesn't work, then you're really stuck, because instead of having a pipe that's spewing oil you have to deal with, all of a sudden, you have a whole area that's spewing oil. And it's much, much harder to think about how you would contain it under that circumstance.

So every time I've talked to people about this, they say, you know, maybe it worked for Russia. I mean, I actually haven't even tracked down the original sources of that, but we just it just seems like not a good solution here.

AL: Okay. At least a thought.

CONAN: Oh, yeah, well worth the idea. Thanks, Al. Let's here's an email question, this I guess a more general question from Sherry(ph) in San Francisco. What happens to the space inside the Earth from which the oil comes? Does the mantle shift? Are oil fields from around the world connected? What ultimately fills the space from which the oil flows?

HARRIS: Well, we think of this as a huge sort of open pool of oil down there. In fact, what the oil is, it's sort of living between the pores of the shale rock that's down there. And so basically, nothing much happens at all.

The oil sort of oozes up from between the pores, but the rock is still there and is still fairly solid in most cases. So I think that's and what will happen is it will be this immediate surrounding reservoir. You can sort of think of it as a sponge, and once that gets wrung dry, then eventually, the oil will stop flowing. But it doesnt it won't keep from around the world or anything like that. It basically will use up the immediate oil.

CONAN: Let's go next to Sara(ph), and Sara's calling us from Florence in Italy.

SARA (Caller): Hi, my question is with all this oil on the water, in the water, and the hurricane season coming, is it possible that we're going to find some of this oil is sucked up into clouds and that we're going to be rained on by oil?

HARRIS: That's an interesting question. I think most of the water that ends up in the atmosphere in these tropical storms is actually...

xxx we're going to find some of this oil is sucked up in the clouds and that we're going to be rained on by oil?

HARRIS: That's an interesting question. I think most of the water that ends up in the atmosphere in these tropical storms is actually evaporated up. And actually a significant amount of this oil has evaporated. The lighter elements of this, something like 30 or 40 percent of the oil actually does evaporate into the air. And so some of it is already in our air, as a matter of fact. But I would be surprised if we were, you know, if it would rain oil droplets or something as a result of a hurricane.

CONAN: Sarah, I mentioned Kuwait earlier. I was there in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War when the oil fires were burning and there was a lot of gunk in the air, and there were thunderstorms. You don't think of thunderstorms in Kuwait, but there were thunderstorms in Kuwait. I briefly worried that the sky would catch on fire. But did the water fell in great black greasy globs...

SARAH: Yeah.

CONAN: ...I'm sure was not good for my health, but some years later I am still here.

SARAH: Yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: And Richard, as far as I understand, the biggest concern...

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call, Sarah. The biggest concern about hurricanes in terms of oil that's in the water, not just it might disrupt these recovery efforts, is that it would wash lots of oil much farther in shore as you have the tidal surge.

HARRIS: That's absolutely true. So, I mean, hurricanes and oil are not a happy combination.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Brian(ph). Brian with us from Sioux City.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead please.

BRIAN: Well, I was wondering, I used to work for a natural gas company. And when we had blowouts on pipes or cut pipes, we would use a STOPPLE fitting that would - basically, it's an expandable plug that goes deep inside the pipe to stop the gas from coming out. And we could use it on pipes with gas blowing up to 100psi coming out of that. And I'm wondering why they can't use something like that for this situation.

HARRIS: Well, I think partly it's - the access is very difficult. You could stop up the end of the pipe maybe a little bit, but you would then back it up into other holes that were - that are in the pipe. I think the pressures are also vastly harder that what you're talking about. We're talking about 10,000psi, which is a lot more pressure than you're referring to. And I think, also, it gets back to whether the well could hold it. If you could plug up this well, would the well actually stay intact? And their concern is maybe not.

BRIAN: But could someone develop one that would be strong enough and make it go deep enough into the bedrock to plug it up down there?

HARRIS: Well, in a sense, that's what they're planning to do. But they'll use cement and they'll drill the relief well, which will intersect at the very bottom of this blown-out well, and they'll essentially pump as much cement into this as they can. And they'll create a plug out of cement that will be - that will fill the inside of the well. And that seems to be the most secure way to deal with it.

CONAN: And you mentioned bedrock, Brian. Remember all those thousands of feet of mud between the sea floor and the bedrock below, so that too.

BRIAN: Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BRIAN: Thank you. Thanks so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. A bit of news, federal regulators today approved the first new Gulf of Mexico oil well since the president lifted a brief ban on drilling in shallow water, even as deepwater projects remain frozen after the massive BP spill. This is according to the Associated Press. The Minerals Management Service granted a new drilling permit sought by brand Abandoned Oil and Gas for a site about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, 115 feet below the ocean surface. It's south of the Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge and Game Preserve, far to the west of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that triggered the BP spill.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Keith(ph). And Keith calling us from Harvard, where he's been very patient.

KEITH (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I have a question for Representative Markey. I'm a resident of Massachusetts, and I've heard the representatives say that there are no government resources and that we must rely exclusively on the resources and assets of BP. And I've also heard Admiral Allen say the same thing.

CONAN: Indeed, the president had said the same thing.

KEITH: Yes. And that's just not the case. Right here in the state of Massachusetts, we have a three-man research submersible under the direction Robert Ballard, Dr. Ballard, that could take engineers to the wellhead and look more closely at the problem. They also have a very sophisticated manipulator arm that can be adapted to a range of tasks. For instance, they could be involved in doing this actual cutting off the pipe and have engineers right on the spot looking at it. And I've heard Pat Campbell, the lead engineer for BP, say that he's frustrated that he can't be right at the wellhead to observe this and he's having to control everything from a mile away. And I'm just wondering why these assets that are funded by NOAA are not being brought into play.

HARRIS: Yeah, well, there are certainly some assets being - that are NOAA assets that are being brought into play. There's this remotely - sort of -actually robotically controlled thing called a Gulper, which is - you can sort of think of it as a drone but it flies around underwater instead of above the sky and - up in the sky. And it has been collecting water samples and doing all sorts of things down there. There are that obviously the Navy has a lot of assets that they could bring to bear.

But if you look at the videos, one - I mean, for one thing, we're maybe not talking about hardware that is available to the government as much as we're talking about talent, which is the oil and gas industry has thousands of wells that they deal with underwater. They're used to using these submersible - these robotic submarines, essentially, and they're very adept at doing it. They have a great deal of experience. I mean, Robert Ballard is a great scientist, but he does not do a lot of pipe cutting and things like that underwater.

CONAN: He's also, in recent years, and I'm talking the last 15 years, found remotely operated submersibles much more useful than manned submersible.

HARRIS: Absolutely. They actually have a really good point of view. I think it's a little disingenuous, actually, to say, oh, we can't get down there to see what's going on. We have tremendous cameras down there. We have people who seem to be, you know, the best in the world at running these little - these remotely operated vehicles. I think that, you know, having a person in a submarine, you know, might make us feel good, but I'm not sure that that really would increase the capability significantly.

KEITH: Well, I have a different opinion in regard to that. I'm also an experienced underwater film cameraman and I've had some experience working with these submarines and I've had some experience working with ROV operators as well. One of the problems with working with an ROV from a long distance way is this depth perception. You have to use a 3D visual monitor in order to have depth perception.

Another is, as a cameraman, I know that in shallow underwater, that your human eye can see far more detail and assess the situation in far greater expanse than a camera can. Also, we're only seeing what the camera's pointing at. So there may be a affiliated or associated problem that a scientist sitting in a submarine could see that the cameras can't see because no one stopped to direct the camera in that direction.

HARRIS: Well, okay, I hear you and I understand that. I think, you know, there are already a dozen to 16 remotely operated vehicles down there. Each one has its own tether, and it's just a huge amount of choreography just to make sure they don't tangle up with each other. So I think that's another concern. But eyes down there, human eyes down there, I could see a value as well.

CONAN: Keith, thanks very much for the call. Richard, can you stay with us a couple of more minutes?

HARRIS: Yes.

CONAN: All right. After Richard takes a couple of more questions about what's happening on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, we'll also talk about why crime is down and why so many of us believe otherwise. Sociologist Robert Sampson will explain. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: In just a couple of minutes, we're going to be talking about a discrepancy between the fact that crime rates have been going down - down significantly - and down for any number of years while the perception of crime continues to rise. So stay tuned for that.

But we've asked Richard Harris, NPR science correspondent, to stay with us to answer a couple of more questions about what's going on at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

And this email from Julie(ph) in Vancouver, Washington. Why aren't other oil companies, especially U.S. oil companies, pitching in? Why hasn't the government asked them to help, if not with the actual fixing of the leak then with the cleanup?

HARRIS: Well, other oil companies are indeed pitching in with ideas and with -and are part of the overall team. It's clearly BP's legal responsibility to do the cleanup. And it's been done in coordination with a whole bunch of other agencies. So, you know, the industry as a whole is involved, but BP is picking up the tab.

CONAN: We keep hearing, indeed, the president said BP is trying - is there anything, he was asked, that BP should be doing that other people saying they might be doing that they're not. And he said no. They're - what they're doing is the best recommendation that we are hearing from.

But there are other ideas, including this idea of suspending like an umbrella over the well and, obviously, sucking up the water with a lot of oil in it, and then pumping it into super tankers.

HARRIS: Yeah. There are many, many, many ideas out there. BP actually has people, and I guess the government, too, is filtering them through. There's an actual form that people can fill out, and some of them are kind of out there and some of them are very sensible. I actually heard from some scientists in Florida at the Florida Institute of Technology, who had an idea about how to prevent ice crystals from forming inside this pipe to bring the oil and gas up to the surface. And they were frustrated that - they think they have a really good idea. They've submitted in their form and they can't get anyone to say, yeah, we got it, we - here's what we think of it or whatever. But it's also true that they are - that the whole enterprise is inundated with these ideas.

CONAN: One caller. Let's go to David(ph), David with us from El Cerrito in California.

DAVID (Caller): Hello. Glad to be on your show. Background: I'm a crew and metal worker - background for my comment. I noticed in the video that - as BP video - I've observed a carbide tooth saw cutting the underside of a horizontal pipe, which I thought was awkward. In my own experience, usually you cut the top. That's just the way the tool usually rotates. Well, you know, one reason for that is as many crew - as many crafts people know, if you cut underneath a horizontal limb, like a tree branch, for instance - many people might be more experienced with this - the saw will pinch even if the limb is well supported.

When I heard that the saw blades stalled, I was literally sickened by the sense that our sea(ph) is in incompetent hands. Do you have an opinion on this? I mean, for me, I think that there's almost no way that they could have supported that well enough to be cutting from underneath and...

CONAN: So as your...

HARRIS: Well, the saw blade, I - the saw blade, I think, you were seeing yesterday was a circular saw, is that right?

DAVID: Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah. And that was - and that's not the saw that stalled out. The saw that stalled out is a diamond string or wire saw, I guess it is, which is sort of a circulating saw. You can sort of think of it as the band saw, but instead of having teeth, it's sort of a string covered with diamond coating materials. And that was trying to make a horizontal cut. But I think the same thing happened, which was that, basically, once the weight of the pipe that they were cutting shifted, it pinned the...

CONAN: Blade, if you will.

HARRIS: ...blade in place. They were trying to support the pipe with some - I saw lines going up. I don't know how far. I mean, think about it, you probably have to go up 5,000 feet to be supporting this from anything...

DAVID: Right. Metal workers usually prop the cut of a pipe like that open by driving wedges into it. So as the cut proceeds - also lumberjacks do the same thing. They drive wedges behind the cut to keep it from binding because they can't control it.

HARRIS: Yeah. And I certainly don't know the answer to your question in that much detail. The one piece of information I can offer, is they were hoping to get as clean a cut as possible in order to be able to put a rubber seal on top of it. So I think they were hoping not to mar the edge of the cut with wedges or what have you.

But I mean, all I can say is that, you know, a great deal of expertise went into this, and everyone makes bad judgments, and it sounds as though this is one thing that just didn't work out for them.

DAVID: Yeah. Well, one in a long series.

CONAN: Yeah, one of several, yeah.

DAVID: Just very disappointed. Thanks for hearing my comment.

CONAN: David, thanks for the call. And Richard, that brings us to one final question. If this doesn't work, if the relief wells don't work, what's the worst-case scenario here?

HARRIS: Well, everyone keeps saying, well, the relief will have to work eventually. And if they - it's - if they don't, this - the oil will just keep spilling and spilling and spilling. So they have to - there has to be something if a relief well simply doesn't work. And - but we have - but I've been asking around. I have not found a single example so far - although I'd be interested in knowing if anyone knows one - of a relief well like this, which is called a bottom kill, that did not work out, that actually failed. And that would be very scary indeed if there were such an occasion. But I've been looking around, I have not yet heard of one. But that's not to say they don't...

CONAN: If you have information about that, send us an e-mail: talk@npr.org. We'll pass it along to Richard.

HARRIS: I appreciate that.

CONAN: Richard Harris, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

HARRIS: Good to be with you, Neal.

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