Weather Delays BP's Plan To Collect More Oil

Weather is delaying BP's plans to collect more oil from its blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. The company had been planning to hook up an additional ship to collect oil from the well, but the seas have been too rough.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Bad weather is delaying BP's plans to collect more oil from its blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. The company had been planning to hook up an additional ship to collect oil from the well, but the seas have been too rough.

Joining us to talk about this effort is NPR science correspondent, Richard Harris. Hey, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning.

KELLY: So we've heard a lot about Hurricane Alex. What's the actual impact been in the Gulf?

HARRIS: Well, as you know, Alex got nowhere near the well, which is a very good thing because if it had it would have shut down operations there for maybe two weeks. But it did stir up rough seas throughout the Gulf, and that has stopped oil skimming operations in the Gulf for a period of time. It also delayed BP's efforts to install this new oil collection system on the seafloor.

So I was just checking the weather buoys, it was - the waves were showing. There were still, like, ten-foot waves a couple of days ago. They're now down to five feet but there's still rough seas out there.

KELLY: And a lot of us have been glued to this underwater camera. Tell us what it looks like now, at the moment, at the bottom of the Gulf.

HARRIS: Right. We do see the oil still spewing out from around the cap that's collecting some of it, but there's still plenty left to be collected. What you can't see in that image, though, is there are a couple of pipes that come out the side of the blowout preventer; they are only three inches across. They seem pretty modest little pipes, but one of them actually is carrying about 8,000 barrels of oil a day up to the surface. And it's being burned off and that's good.

This plan that they want to put in place now would attach to the second one of those pipes, and that could carry up as much as 20 or 25,000 barrels of oil a day. So that could make a huge difference in the amount of oil they collect.

But right now, that pipe is going from the blowout preventer just up to this -a giant floating cylinder that's floating about 300 feet below the surface of Gulf. What they're waiting for the weather to cooperate with them to do is to connect that huge floating cylinder to a ship on the surface, to actually take on that oil.

KELLY: Okay. And what about - we talked about the surface, we talked about skimming efforts being slowed down a little bit. How are those efforts going, trying to collect the oil that has actually made it up to the surface of the ocean?

HARRIS: Well, in terms of the skimming efforts, there are 560 skimmers, according to latest government statistics, out there that can do the work. Most of them are, unfortunately, still in port because the weather is still too rough for them to get out there. You need actually pretty calm seas in order to skim oil.

Same goes for burning off oil, which BP has been doing on the surface also, and you need calm seas for that. So they haven't been able to do these controlled burns on the surface.

The one skimmer that's been attracting a lot of attention is something called the A Whale, which was a modified - huge ship modified by a Taiwanese tycoon who thought, you know, maybe I can actually go out there and scoop up large quantities of oil. And he hired a P.R. firm in Washington, D.C. to whip up press attention and to get it through the federal bureaucracy to get out there.

And they've been out there trying to scoop up oil, but unfortunately, again they're hitting rough seas. And it's also not clear whether the design is really exactly right for a spill like this, which a lot of oil scattered in a lot of places and not all clumped together - which this might work.

So far they're saying that the tests with that ship are inconclusive.

KELLY: Okay. So, Richard, it sounds like weather remains obviously a huge factor in all this. And that the best case scenario would be that they might be able to start capturing most of the oil in the next couple of days, by this weekend. That's a very different thing from actually stopping the flow of the oil. What are the prospects for that?

HARRIS: Well, those are still fairly hopeful, we hope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: I mean, obviously. What they're doing is they're drilling this relief well, we've talked about. And the relief that it provides is actually not capturing oil, but actually providing an avenue to pump cement down to the bottom of this well and clog it off. And that - it's proceeding ahead of schedule right now. It's only a couple of hundred feet from its destination. And it's moving slowly and carefully because they want to - they don't want to be surprised and hit the well when they're not expecting to. So they're moving very carefully on that.

But ultimately, when they get to exactly where they want to be, they'll put a special drill bit on and drill into the outer steel well of the well. They will bore into it and pump in heavy fluid. And if they're lucky that heavy fluid will just essentially fill up the well from the bottom and the well will stop. And then they can pump in the cement.

However, there's sort of a - there's a cylinder, another pipe within the pipe. And so it's possible there's also oil spilling within that interior pipe. So they may have to repeat the process: drill through that interior pipe, pump in more mud and pump in more cement. And so that's all in process right now, not the drilling part - but - not actually drilling into the pipes, but they're getting closer and closer.

So that's the hope for finishing that. If we're lucky, that'll be end of July. The official target dates are early to mid-August.

KELLY: Early to mid-August. Okay, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

KELLY: That's NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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