Cap 'Encouraging Step'; BP To Expand System

BP's oil-capture system is successfully drawing up some of the oil from the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. The processing ship on the surface is reaching its limit, so BP is calling in a rig from the North Sea. It's not clear how much oil is still spilling into the Gulf, but it appears to be a lot.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And Im Deborah Amos.

BP says its fine tuning a system to capture the oil thats spewing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. But that system is already close to its capacity. As the live images show, there is still lots of oil spilling into the water. So BP says it's moving ahead with plans to expand the system with additional equipment.

NPR's Richard Harris joins us now. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning.

AMOS: First of all, Richard, tell us how much oil has BP managed to collect from this blown out well?

HARRIS: Well, on Saturday they said they gathered about 10,000 barrels. And Sunday, they said about 11,000 barrels. So thats a bit of progress. In fact, when you remember their first system, which was using a little pipe to collect oil from the system, they were getting one-fifth that amount. This is five times better, let's put it that way. So the well is probably, you know - so thats improvement from what they saw before. But we also have to remember the well is probably spewing out a lot more oil now, because they cut off the bent over pipe. So thats the plus side.

Now, the minus side is that it's really close to the limits of what the ship can handle on the surface - thats about 15,000 barrels a day at most. But thats not, you know, thats dependent upon getting the maximum flow all the time. And they can't really quite do that. So they're really close to what they can do on the surface.

And here's how BP's Vice President Kent Wells described the project yesterday.

Mr. KENT WELLS (Senior vice President, BP America, Inc.): We only define success as when we actually get the oil plugged, we get the oil cleaned up out of the Gulf of Mexico, and we return people's lives back to normal. But this is an encouraging step.

AMOS: Encouraging, but what can they do at this point to get more of that oil?

HARRIS: Well, first thing they're planning to do is modify the system that they used to try the top kill on the well. Remember, they were trying to pump mud down into the well to block it off - that didnt work. But they still have the pipes that are going to down there. So they're thinking, well, maybe we can refigure the system and have the oil flow up those pipes that the mud was flowing down. So they're working on that.

They may actually be able to put that in place by the end of the week. That could capture another 5,000 barrels a day and that would bring the total to 20,000 barrels a day. But there could still be more than that. There likely could be more than spilling out of the wells.

So theyve planned ahead for what to do next. And the next plan is, by the end of June they're planning to build an even bigger containment system. And they will have to take off the existing cap to put that in place.

The real problem is BP needs more capacity to process the oil on the surface. And so they're actually now starting to bring in a rig from the North Sea. Thats going to take a couple of weeks, though.

AMOS: Why do they only have one ship out there in the first place?

HARRIS: Well, remember, they were still drilling this well. They weren't actually expecting to be processing the well just yet. So they were, you know -but it's a good question why they're just now starting to send a rig over from the North Sea.

AMOS: Once they get this oil up to the surface, can they do anything with it?

HARRIS: Yeah. Actually they flare off the natural gas, which is a large component of it. They just burn it there at the surface. They take the oil, they put in barges, and they send it ashore and they sell, essentially.

AMOS: And, well, there's some question about that. Who does get that oil? Can they sell it? should it be confiscated?

HARRIS: Well, there was a question yesterday about - the oil does belong to BP. The question is whether they have to pay royalties on it. That question was asked at a press conference yesterday and the federal official said: Good question, we'll have to find out the answer to that.

AMOS: You know, you can still of course look at that live feed, and there's a lot of oil still coming out. Is it clear how much that is being captured?

HARRIS: It's really hard to tell. Remember the scientists said there were may be 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day coming out? That was before the pipe was broken. That was also their low-end estimate. It wasnt even their best guest estimate. And the true number could be higher, in fact. And we also know that once that kinked pipe was removed, the flow increased. Officially the government says maybe by 20 percent but thats actually a BP number. And independent scientists say it could actually be considerably higher than that.

AMOS: And when are we going to get exact numbers? Or is that just impossible?

HARRIS: Well, we'll get better numbers and actually some of those could come today. This Flow Rate Technical Group, which was assembled by the federal government, met yesterday. They now have a new number for how much oil was spewing out in the early days of the spill, or a new estimate range of numbers. And we should see those today, maybe. Maybe a little later in the week. But they're coming soon.

That group is also getting video today from BP to analyze the fountain of oil that we saw after the riser pipe was cut off. So we should actually much better estimate shortly about how much oil is actually coming up now through this system.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

AMOS: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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