Weekend May Bring Turning Point In Gulf Mess

The federal official leading the Gulf oil spill cleanup said Friday that a new containment cap and an additional ship collecting oil could effectively contain the spill in the next "several days."

National Incident Commander Thad Allen briefs reporters in Theodore, Ala., about skimming operations i i

National Incident Commander Thad Allen briefs reporters about skimming operations during a news conference Thursday in Theodore, Ala. Dave Martin/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Dave Martin/AP
National Incident Commander Thad Allen briefs reporters in Theodore, Ala., about skimming operations

National Incident Commander Thad Allen briefs reporters about skimming operations during a news conference Thursday in Theodore, Ala.

Dave Martin/AP

The work to replace a leaky containment cap on the well head with a tighter one will begin Saturday, National Incident Commander Thad Allen said Friday. At the same time, a ship connecting to a different part of the leak is expected to come online Sunday.

Allen said he wants BP to take advantage of a current stretch of good weather, "to accelerate the process of capping, shutting in the well from the top and increasing the prospects of killing the well from below through the relief wells."

This oil capture system is not a permanent solution. It would have to be abandoned in the event of a hurricane, and oil would spill into the ocean during that time. But if the weather cooperates, it could capture all the oil until the runaway well can be plugged with cement in the coming weeks.

How It Would Work

The latest effort to cap and contain the Gulf oil spill is a multistep process. Here's how it would work:

1. The existing containment cap will be removed — perhaps in a matter of minutes.

2. Robot submarines will then remove a stub of pipe that's bolted to the top of the blowout preventer. That could be tricky, involving the removal of six large bolts. Once the stub is removed, that will expose a flat plate, or flange.

3. Two pipes that are sticking up inside the blowout preventer will be then strapped together.

4. BP will then install a cylindrical device over the protruding pipes that will be bolted down onto the flange.

5. BP will then install a manifold, or valve system, on top of that cylindrical device.

6. Once that valve system is in place, BP will need to connect four pipes or houses to oil processing ships at the surface. That should be enough to capture 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil per day, which should be enough to capture all the oil from the runaway well. Federal officials estimate that the well is spewing between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil per day.

Relief wells remain the best chance of stopping the underwater gusher, NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

"After 80 days, we have to hope they can finally get it right, but they still have to do it," says Ian McDonald, a Florida State University oceanographer. "We've had build up from BP before and they've had failures — but they've had some successes lately."

If all goes according to plan, the combination of the cap and the new vessel could collect all the leaking oil by Monday. Work continues on what officials hope will be the ultimate solution: a pair of relief wells intercepting the leaking well far below the seafloor.

The new containment cap is expected to form a better seal over the well head, to allow more of the oil to be collected and sent up to ships on the surface for collection or burning.

"Technically it's pretty achievable," Allen said. He said if the new cap can't be placed on the well, the old cap will be put back and there are multiple backup caps available in case any one cap fails.

The new, tighter cap should be in place early Monday. Allen said the ship Helix Producer, which is to be hooked to a different part of the leaking well — lower than the new cap — will start collecting oil Sunday and be fully operational Tuesday. He has previously said that the full system should be able to collect 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day.

The schedule for both efforts has been accelerated to take advantage of what could be a rare window of good weather. The hookup of the Helix Producer was delayed this week by poor weather.

The containment effort is not the permanent solution to stop the environmental catastrophe that began April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers.

Still, the best hope to stop the spewing oil from the blown-out well a mile under the sea is the drilling of relief wells deep below the seafloor. Though officials said the first could be finished by the end of July, weeks ahead of schedule, they are quick to point out that such an optimistic timetable would require ideal conditions every step of the way.

That is something that has rarely happened since the leak began.

"This is a three-act tragedy that we're involved in," says McDonald, the Florida State oceanographer. "Act 1, in which the oil is still spilling out, has gone on forever. Even after it's all plugged, there's still a hell of a lot of oil in the water.

"Act 2 will be the cleanup and the effort to try to undo the environmental damage," McDonald continues. "Act 3 will belong to the lawyers."

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