'Alex' Could Slow BP's Plan To Capture More Oil

BP could be within a few weeks of stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The company plans to install new equipment at the well, which could either capture the oil or shut the well down. And the permanent solution — plugging the well with cement — also is running ahead of schedule. But Tropical Storm Alex could force significant delays.

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BP could be - and we stress could be - within a few weeks of stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. There are a number of uncertainties like bad weather in the Gulf that could force delays. Still, the oil company plans to install new equipment at the well which could either capture the oil or shut the well down. The permanent solution, plugging the well with cement, is also running ahead of its timetable, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: BP had been hoping for some big steps forward over the next few weeks in the effort to stanch the flow of oil into the Gulf. This week, the company had hoped to install new equipment that could double its capacity to capture oil to about 50,000 barrels a day. But a distant storm in the Gulf could put that off for a week, not because of wind and rain, but because the waters could simply get too rough for BP to finish that work.

At best, that new system will still leave some oil spilling into the Gulf, but in mid-July, BP plans to replace its leaky oil collection cap with one that's actually bolted onto the top of the blowout preventer. BP vice president Kent Wells says this valve will not only be a much better way to collect oil, but it could also be used to control the flow.

Mr. KENT WELLS (Vice President, BP): (Unintelligible) I'll call it choke the well back, reduce the amount of flow, and then if the capability is there to actually stop the flow, we'll do that.

HARRIS: Whether they can actually shut down the well depends on the conditions inside it. If there's too much damage down below, closing off the well could force oil and gas out the sides, which could make matters worse, so that's a delicate operation. The long term solution remains plugging the well with cement. Kent Wells says the primary relief well to do that is continuing at a good pace.

Mr. WELLS: So we started the well at the surface some 2,800 feet away from the well. We've not got to within 20 feet of it and we will start what we call paralleling the well.

HARRIS: The plan now is to drill the relief well straight down, keeping it about 20 feet from the damaged well. The two wells will run side by side for 900 feet or so. Engineers detect electric fields from the damaged well to stay close. Eventually they will put on a drill bit that can make a sharp turn and pierce the existing well. If the valve at the top didn't shut it off entirely, they plan to stop it by pumping in very heavy fluid. And then BP will pour in a cement plug and cap it permanently.

All this is moving faster than planned, but Wells says they're not changing their target date.

Mr. WELLS: We continue to say what we've said from day one. It'll be early August and we continue to say that. Rest assured, we will be doing everything we can to kill this well as soon as we possibly can.

HARRIS: Wells is feeling confident in part because BP has hired a man they say is among the best in the world at stopping blowouts. John Wright works for famed oil services company Boots and Coots. He appears in a BP video in a casual shirt with a shock of white hair and a silver mustache.

Mr. JOHN WRIGHT (Boots and Coots): Out of 40 relief wells that I've drilled, we've never missed yet. So I've got high confidence that we will take care of this problem as soon as we can get there.

HARRIS: Getting there is a critical step towards stopping the well, but it's not the end of the story. Placing the cement plug is the last critical step. BP says that's likely to succeed, but in this business there are no guarantees.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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