BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles, pictured in May, says the company has been going "flat out" to remedy the Gulf oil spill disaster.
BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles, pictured in May, says the company has been going "flat out" to remedy the Gulf oil spill disaster. Patrick Semansky/AP
As BP continues to be criticized for the way it has responded to the Gulf oil spill, its American-born chief operating officer is again making the case that the British company is doing all it can. And, Doug Suttles tells NPR's Melissa Block, the entire oil industry and the government will learn valuable lessons from the disaster.
Meanwhile, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who has been supervising the Gulf oil spill response, says BP's capacity to collect oil from the blown-out well could double by this weekend if the weather cooperates.
A vessel called the Helix has been delayed by bad weather for more than a week. But when it is operational, it may be able to catch up to 50,000 barrels of oil a day, according to Suttles.
"It will essentially double what we can capture now," Suttles says.
Just how much the rig is spewing each day into the Gulf has been a moving target. At the outset of the explosion, BP put the flow at 1,000 barrels a day. Then the company raised it to 5,000 barrels a day. Now, the government says the total is more likely 60,000 barrels a day. Suttles says the figure is hard for BP to discern.
"If you go back in time, one of the things we've all said — the Coast Guard, ourselves, NOA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] — everyone has said it's extremely difficult to know how much oil is coming out of this well," Suttles says. "The reasons for that are we can't put a person down there, we can't meter it. The techniques being used — and there's many — are wide."
Suttles says that even the estimates put out by the National Incident Command's Flow Rate Technical Group keep changing. "Every time they look at it, they tend to have to adjust those because of those challenges," he says.
Experts have said that far more accurate flow estimates could have been made right from the outset after the April 20 blowout, however, if BP had immediately made available the high definition camera feeds that it was receiving from the Gulf floor.
But Suttles says that the changing numbers did not affect the company's initial response.
"What's important to look at, though, is how does it affect the response?" he says. "From the beginning, all of us have essentially gone flat out. We actually looked at this thing and said, 'This is a terrible event, it's critical that we apply every resource that we can find to this problem,' and we've done that. So the response wasn't predicated on what that estimate was and what the flow rate was."
Suttles also argues that the company has been responding as quickly as possible. He says the containment options, including the equipment, have required work.
"We've had to do things like install things on the seabed, build floating riser systems," he says. "And we've been doing these things as quickly as we can. In fact, after we finish the Helix producer, we have more vessels we're going to have ready both to hook up and to have as redundancy and back up in the system. So we've been working as fast as we could. It wasn't actually that we thought the rate was a certain amount and therefore we had enough."
BP has been accused of minimizing the extent of the disaster and being caught flat-footed. Suttles says the sheer numbers prove otherwise.
"I clearly hear that a lot, and I understand the frustrations with that," he says. "If you look at what we've done here — I mean just today we have 45,000 people working on this, we have almost 6,000 vessels, we've spent over $3.2 billion so far. I think this shows the levels of commitment to getting this thing fixed as fast as we can to respond in the right way."
In a March filing with the federal government, BP projected it would be able to skim and remove nearly 500,000 barrels of oil a day if there were a major oil spill. BP has already fallen 37 million barrels short of that. In explaining the discrepancy, Suttles says that no one has ever faced this before.
"Once this event is finished, there will be so many things people look back on say, 'What have we learned, and what do we need to do differently?' At the moment, you can imagine the people out here in the Gulf Coast want me to work on the problem I have right now, which is how do I actually clean this thing up as quickly as I can, how do I mitigate the damages," he says. "It's a good question, but I think the important point right now is what do I do to minimize the impact, what do I do to collect the oil offshore, what do I do when it gets ashore to make sure we clean it up as quickly as possible?"
Asked if it's fair to say that the promise of what BP could do was wildly off, Suttles says, "I don't know.
"What I can tell you, though, is when this spill is done, the capability of the industry and the government to respond to something like this will be very different than it was on the day it started," he says.
"We're not only fighting the spill with the tools that were available to us at the time, we've been adding and trying new things constantly. Many people are familiar with the supertanker concept, which the test is being completed today. We're launching a whole new skimmer system on Thursday. Those things will be available to the world, to the industry after this event is finished."