Cap Collecting Some Crude As Cleanup Continues
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
As you know, we promised you a conversation this hour with Anthony Bourdain about his latest book. The author has been unavoidably detained in traffic in New York. We hope to reschedule that conversation. We're going to try to do it next week. Live radio, what are you going to do?
In the meantime, we're going to focus on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and then devote the majority of this hour to a new report on maternal the health of maternal women, and good news - good news after many reports and many years when there did not seem to be any progress. And we'll talk about some controversy over that good news, and the Millennium Development goals.
In any case, BP continues to collect at least some of the crude with the cap they've placed over the top of the ruptured well. Authorities earlier reported the cap collected around 460,000 gallons on Sunday and that it was capturing anywhere from a third to three-quarters of this oil spewing out of the damaged riser pipe that was cut as part of the containment effort, increasing the flow as a side effect.
There's still no way to know how much more is escaping into the Gulf or what kind of damage it may do. President Obama said this morning he's talking with his experts in order to know whose butt to kick, though he used more colorful language, if you wanted to quote him directly.
Meanwhile, fishermen and shrimp crews, cleanup crews continue to fight the oil that is washing up on the coasts of many Gulf states. If you have questions about the spill and the efforts to contain it, 800-989-8255.
Richard Harris is an NPR science correspondent who's been following the spill for us. Richard joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program, as always, Richard, though we appreciate your efforts to do so on short notice.
RICHARD HARRIS: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And there is news today about the amount of oil that is being captured by this cap that BP placed on it over the weekend, and then it runs through a pipe up to the surface.
HARRIS: Indeed. Yeah, things are getting better and better, although I think they've hit a plateau, because over the weekend, they got 10,000 barrels a day on Saturday, 11,000 barrels a day on Sunday. Yesterday, they collected 15,000 barrels in a day, which is I should mention, considering they were saying for so many weeks and weeks and weeks that the spill was only 5,000 barrels. It's sort of interesting that they're now capturing 15,000, and there is plenty left, apparently, still going into the water.
But for the time being, they can't capture any more than that because that's about the capacity of the drill ship on the surface. It has to take the oil and gas up the pipe. It separates the oil, flares off the gas, burns it off literally to get rid of it, and, you know, does whatever little of the processing it needs to do.
It has plenty of capacity to hold more oil, but it just can't move any more through its pipes and through its system. So right now, that's the best they can do, and we still look underwater at the live video, which I watch at my desk as the day progresses, and you can still see quite a bit of oil spewing out of the system. So...
CONAN: Is there any estimate of how much is not being captured, that is spewing into the Gulf every day now?
HARRIS: We will probably get a better idea of that later in the week, but we do not know right now. I mean, people are actually getting video. There's a federal team of scientists whose job is took look at some of the video and try to figure out what the flow rates are. And they are getting video today or tomorrow or sometime soon from BP, from the time after they cut off the riser pipe but before they put the cap on top.
And there was a very dramatic-looking essentially volcano of oil during that time. They can use video techniques and other methods to get a reasonably good estimate of how much oil was flowing at that time.
And then we know they're capturing 15,000 barrels. So if there's you know, whatever they come up with...
CONAN: Take estimates, subtract 15,000 barrels.
HARRIS: Exactly, and that's what we know is left. But we but that has not yet been done. That will probably not be done until about the end of the week, and so we'll have to wait on that.
CONAN: And it must be hard to estimate because some of it is natural gas.
HARRIS: That's correct, and it is possible, once it gets to the surface, to know what the proportion of oil and gas is, and BP has been reporting those figures, as well. So a back-of-the-envelope calculation, it seems to be about two parts gas and one part oil that's reaching the surface right now. Or that would be actually the equivalent on the sea floor in terms of volume.
So yeah, when you're looking at that stuff spewing out, it's mostly gas, but there's still a lot of oil in it.
CONAN: And obviously, gas gets bigger near the surface because of lower pressure and...
HARRIS: It expands tremendously, yeah. It grows by like 160 times. So a tiny bubble grows to 160 times its size.
CONAN: Now, there are a couple of efforts under way, as I understand it, to improve things, one of which involves bringing a rig from the North Sea?
HARRIS: That's right. That's the I'll get to that in a moment, but let me tell you about the first thing they're planning to do, which is that you may recall a week or two ago, they were trying to top-kill the well by dumping, pumping oil mud, essentially drilling mud. It's not really mud. It's just sort of a chemical slurry that includes mud and other and stuff.
They were trying to pump it down these two lines that go into the blowout preventer and pump enough mud in there to stop the oil from flowing. That, as we know, was a failure, but the lines are still there, and somebody at BP realized, oh, well, what if we run these lines backwards, and instead of putting things down those lines, we can pull oil up those lines.
And so they are actually now in the process of sort of re-plumbing this kind of elaborate system so that they can bring oil up those lines. And they can bring about 5,000 barrels a day, maybe a little bit more, up to a separate ship through those lines. That ship can handle about 5,000 barrels a day. They could probably bring more up the lines, but then they couldn't deal with it once it got to the surface.
So that's the intermediate step, and they may be able to do that by the end of this week. So by the end of the week, we may be able to deal with or see 20,000 barrels a day, approximately, not going into the Gulf.
There likely will still be some oil going into the Gulf beyond that. And so then the question is what next? And so BP finally decided, well, what we need to do is get a bigger oil processing vessel, which happens to be in the North Sea at the moment. So they're going to have to bring it across the Atlantic, which will take a couple of weeks.
CONAN: We dont think of these things as sailing vessels, but in fact, they can be towed across the ocean.
HARRIS: Yeah, I have actually gotten conflicting reports about whether this is a rig or a vessel, some sort of a ship. But yeah, but either can come across on its own steam, or it can be put on top of an enormous transport ship and be brought across that way.
So I hope we'll learn more about as I say, we've heard conflicting reports about whether it's a rig or a ship, but we'll get that straightened out.
CONAN: Richard Harris, bringing us up to date on the spill in the Gulf and efforts to contain it. Jacob's(ph) on the line, calling from Detroit.
JACOB (Caller): Hey, Neal.
JACOB: I can be pretty direct with my question here. I keep seeing a lot of numbers, barrels, gallons of oil leaked per day. We all see the video. We all see the pictures of the where the plumes are. And we all know that this is a very, you know, this is a huge catastrophe.
But I just want and I would love, like, a one-second or one-sentence summary: how big of a deal is this? Is this a disaster of Biblical proportions? Is it apocalyptic? Just something to give me, like, a finite grasp of the magnitude of this event.
HARRIS: Well, it's hard to do that in a single sentence, except I can say it's not apocalyptic. There certainly was an oil spill in the Gulf in 1979 that was substantially bigger than this. It was off the coast of Mexico, as opposed to the coast of the U.S. And that fortunately, the currents brought a lot of that oil into the middle of the Gulf. So it didn't wash ashore.
You have to look at this in a couple of different ways, one of which is, you know, how much is coming ashore and doing damage to the shore? And the answer is some, clearly. It's a serious issue, bringing oil ashore, but it's not as catastrophic as it could be, considering how much oil has been spilled.
So the efforts to control and contain the oil have been moderately successful and prevented this from being an even worse catastrophe than it could be.
If you look at it from the standpoint of the fisherman, a large percentage of the fishing grounds have been closed, and that's an economic hardship for them. It can mean bankruptcy. It can mean a lot of things. So for people who live along the Gulf, that's potentially catastrophic for individuals.
Beaches, many of them are open, but even the ones that are open, people are a little bit afraid to go down to the shore in Alabama or Florida or whatever, because they're concerned that, well, maybe by the time we get there, oil will be coming ashore. And so even if it's not actually having an impact on the beaches, it's certainly having an impact on the businesses along there.
So in terms of deep water, also, we just don't know what the impacts of this will be on the ecology of the Gulf. That's a question that will take many years to answer. But obviously, we are seeing pictures of killed seabirds and wildlife.
This could have impact on, for example, tuna, small tuna that breed in this area. They could be harmed, the bluefin tuna, this beautiful animal, and we just don't know exactly how big an impact it will have on them.
CONAN: Jacob, I'm sorry we can't come up with a simple answer for you.
JACOB: No, that's okay. The bottom line is it is a huge deal.
CONAN: Yeah, it's a huge deal.
JACOB: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Jacob. We talked last week, Richard, about efforts to contain the spill, and a couple of people called and said why don't we set off large charges of explosives to try to get the well to crash in on itself, and you explained why that wasn't a good idea.
And in the time since then, there's been a front-page story in the New York Times about an effort that the Russians apparently did with a similar problem and in an undersea well, and they apparently detonated a nuclear weapon.
HARRIS: Yes, it's not that it's impossible, but I mean, think of there are a couple of issues to confront here, one of which is in the Gulf of Mexico, you have 1,000 feet of mud before you get to solid rock, and presumably, you don't want to try to set this off in the mud. You would want to get it to the solid rock.
You have 5,000 feet of sea to go through, which is much more than the Russians had to deal with. We're talking, remember, this is a really deep well that we're dealing with here. It's not you know, this is new stuff for drilling in this kind of depth.
And so and then beyond that, it could fail well, whatever happens, I think it's just, you know, trying to stop one environmental disaster by risking another one is kind of beyond the pale. I can't imagine anyone really giving it serious consideration.
CONAN: Let's get a question in from Sandy(ph), Sandy in Denver.
SANDY (Caller): Hi. I am just wondering: How many of these 5,000-foot wells are there around the world? Is this kind of brave new territory? And why are we just, you know, enamored of finger-pointing on this? Why do we have to look at this online 24 hours a day? I can take my answer off the air, but I'm just a little bit I guess I'd like to put this into some sort of perspective and kind of cut back on the finger-pointing.
CONAN: Finger-pointing, I think we're going to have to look to human nature, and I'm not sure we have time to go into that in depth. But on the specific question, Richard, how new is this deep-water drilling technology? How many other rigs like this are there?
HARRIS: Yeah, well, this technology has been evolving over the last 10 or 20 years. There's something like 1,200 deep-water wells, although most are not as deep as this one.
And this is a technology that, you know, we keep pushing farther and farther into more and more risky areas, as we demand more and more oil for our economy and for, you know, our cars and everything else that we need oil for.
So it's a so it's true that this is a, you know, this is sort of uncharted territory. People were starting to feel pretty confident because they were, you know, drilled so many, and they weren't having so many troubles.
I think what we have obviously seen here, part of the story here, is that the ability to drill and technology to get into these wells was evolving much faster than the safety technology that should also have been coming along behind it, to make sure that if there was a disaster like this or a blowout like this, it wouldn't end up as a disaster.
CONAN: Given the record, obviously the probability of a disaster was low, but the ability to cope with such a disaster was very limited, and well, the worst case seems to have happened.
Richard Harris has been keeping us up to date on the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Spill seems hardly an adequate word, but it's the one we've got. Richard, thank you very much.
HARRIS: My pleasure as always.
CONAN: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. When we come back, we're going to be talking about a new report on women's health worldwide, and for a change, good news. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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