BP Hopes Cap Will Keep Oil From Escaping
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Something finally went as planned for the engineers at BP - maybe. Yesterday, the company finally managed to slice off a damaged pipe that was spewing oil. Now they have lowered a containment cap over the well head. We do not know yet how much difference that will make with America's biggest oil spill. And President Obama is cancelling a trip to Asia, heading again to the Gulf.
NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris is covering this story. He's in our studios. Richard, good morning.
RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what is this cap?
HARRIS: Well, you can think of it as a giant funnel, upside down over the well. And basically, the skinny end of this funnel is a mile-long tube that goes all the way up to a ship on the surface. And basically, the idea is to have this funnel capture the oil as its spewing out of the well, and eventually coax it up the tube, bring up to a ship on the surface, separate out the oil, put it in tankers and burn off all the natural gas that's coming up with it.
INSKEEP: So, in theory, you have a problem solved - in theory.
HARRIS: In theory, but it's a very tricky operation. It took them - I watched them yesterday. It was a very dramatic and slow-motion drama at that yesterday, because it went on for hours and hours. But nothing is easy at 5,000 feet, as everyone keeps saying. But basically, they've moved this funnel very, very gradually over towards the top of the well head, after they had cut off this big pipe, which they use - by the way, they use sort of hydraulic pruning shears.
You can think of these enormous devices just snipped this thing off, and then took a while to clean that area up and create something that this funnel could fit on top of.
But every time that funnel moved, it had - or towards the end of the evening, it had giant plumes of green stuff, which was presumably methyl alcohol, that -it was part of the whole process. And as it moved over, basically, the ship on the surface that was holding the funnel was moving, too. So moving - it was actually - the ship was moving to move the funnel directly in place at around 9:30...
INSKEEP: Move that thing at the bottom of this mile-long pipe. Amazing.
HARRIS: Exactly. It's just amazing to watch. And about 9:30 at night, the thing went right over the well. And, you know, enormous clouds of oil resulting.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about those clouds of oil because, of course, there are live feeds. I'm looking at one here at BP.com, live camera feeds of what's going on underground. And I guess as a layman, what I'd really like to see is a bunch of pipes in the water and nothing else. But what I see are huge clouds of what look oil still spewing up into the ocean.
HARRIS: There still is oil spewing up, and it is really hard to tell from those feeds exactly how much - it's impossible, actually, to tell from those feeds how much oil is actually going up the pipe. It's possible that a significant amount is right now. It's also possible that they're still trying to fine-tune the system and figure out how to draw that oil up without creating methane ice crystals. That's been a problem that has dogged previous attempts to do this.
If that natural gas mixed in with the oil gets in touch with ocean water, it can create these ice crystals that can plug everything up. So that's the main concern. That was why they had that methyl alcohol - that green-tinted stuff -flowing around last night. So...
INSKEEP: Which reminds us how complicated a problem this is. You don't just stick a pipe there and hope that it all spews up to the surface.
HARRIS: That's exactly right. And they've been saying all along that they didn't expect this to capture all the oil. It's still - to your eye and mine, it still looks like an awful lot of oil down there. But it's possible. We don't know. We'll learn later today, I hope, if they're actually able to collect some right now, and if so, how much they are collecting.
INSKEEP: What if this doesn't work?
HARRIS: Well, that's a good question, because BP had a number of other backup plans. Some of them they have had to discard, because the well's condition is so bad, that they can't do some of the backup plans they had.
The other backup plans I've seen are largely fine tuning of this. So you may recall that they have had a couple of other attempts to bring oil up from deep underwater. And those have taken a couple of days to fine tune, so maybe they can just fine-tune this and reduce the amount of oil we see spewing out.
But the backup plans are tweaks, by and large. And so if this doesn't work, the federal government has authorized the use of a lot more dispersants down in the seafloor to at least break up some of this oil and reduce the amount of oil that makes it to the surface.
They are also, of course, drilling this second well and a third well in case the second one fails. And they're...
INSKEEP: Mm-hmm. These are the relief wells.
HARRIS: The so-called relief wells, yeah - although they don't relieve anything. All they do is they provide a channel to put concrete down or cement down to plug up this well. So that's mid-August at the earliest. But that's basically where we're headed.
INSKEEP: And in a couple of seconds: Even if this funnel we're talking about works, it's just a temporary solution until you that that more permanent thing.
HARRIS: Until those wells are plugged. That's right.
INSKEEP: Richard Harris, thanks for your explanations.
HARRIS: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, in our studios this morning.
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