BP Waits To See If New Cap Provides Tighter Seal

BP continues its efforts to contain the Gulf oil leak. A new cap being placed atop the gusher is intended to provide a tight seal and might eventually allow the oil giant to capture all the crude leaking from the well for the first time since the April oil rig explosion that set off the environmental disaster.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

There's high drama today, at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. More than a dozen robotic submarines have been working at BP's blown out well to replace the oil collection system there. It could be completed later this week. And when it is, it may mean that BP is finally able to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf.

Joining us to talk about the latest is NPR Science correspondent Richard Harris.

Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning.

KELLY: So BP's been working on this all weekend, I gather. What have they accomplished so far?

HARRIS: Well, the objective is to bolt on a new set of valves to capture the oil or maybe even just close the valves and stop the flow of oil altogether. But first of all, they had to clear out the old stuff down there.

And you've been watching that leaky cap bouncing around there on TV and the oil spewing out the side. First thing was to get rid of that, which was incredibly easy because that's attached to a ship. They just moved the ship and the cap went away. So that was easy.

The next move, however, started to involved these robotic submarines, because they had to go in and unbolt six enormous, like, 50-pound bolts to clear away this piece of pipe that had been chomped off by this hydraulic shears. And that was, you know, this messy thing the cap was sitting on top of.

So they spent - they were able to do that. And then they spent most of yesterday bolting a giant yellow spool onto the place where that had been before.

And this is - think of it as sort of an adapter ring. Once you have that bolted down then you can clip on top of that the next piece, which is the key piece, this valve device. Weighs 150,000 pounds and it's called a Three Ram stack. And that's going to go on the top of this. That'll be the next step, to do that.

KELLY: And that's like a new cap replacing the older, leakier one?

HARRIS: That's exactly right.

KELLY: OK. I mean, it sounds very complicated. They're trying to get a lot done, tackle this from a lot of directions. And, of course, nobody's ever done anything like this before. I mean, how are you rating the chances that this operation will work?

HARRIS: Well, it seems to be going reasonably well. It's kind of surprising, because, as you say, this is uncharted territory. But it does remind me of space missions done. You know, trying new things in harsh environments. Only in this case it's being done on an incredibly condensed time scale.

There are thousands of engineers working on this, which helps - a lot of smart people thinking about it, a lot of planning. And it turns out BP built a whole model system of this up on dry ground and rehearsed the whole thing before they got under 5,000 feet of water. So I think that also helped them a lot get prepared and figure out what they needed.

They built a lot of backup tools, too. In case what they had didn't work the first time, they already had their backup ideas in place. So a lot, a lot of planning went into it, and I think we're seeing that as we watch these events unfold in essentially in slow motion on the seafloor.

KELLY: But, I mean, in the meantime, Richard, oil still gushing into the Gulf. When do we expect to see that slow down?

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, that is true. But we will see a reduction, if things work well, over the next couple of days actually. Because in parallel to this whole process I was just talking about, they've also been rigging up a second system for drawing oil off the side of the blowout preventer, as opposed to out the top, where it kind of looks like a geyser or whatever.

But that system is supposed to ramp up production over the next few days, and eventually it could draw up 20,000 or 25,000 barrels a day. That combined with the small system that's still been chugging away and collecting a small amount of oil, will actually start to make a difference.

And then the question is, getting the rest of this, once this valve assembly is on top, then they'll also have maybe a couple of weeks, actually, to get all of that working. But we'll see. It could - we could actually have some good news really by the end of this week.

KELLY: End of this week? OK. Thanks, Richard.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

KELLY: That's NPR's Richard Harris.

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