BP To Test New Cap On Leaking Well

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Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Richard Harris about BP's plans to begin pressure testing Tuesday on the new containment cap over the leaking Gulf well.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with what we hope will be the end. Twelve weeks after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, BP may be on the verge of shutting off the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. An operation planned for today will be just a test, but if it works, the gusher could soon be over.

Joining us with the latest is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And what is BP doing now that it hasn't done before to stop the flow of oil?

HARRIS: Well, we've been watching that wobbly cap spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the last several weeks. Well, over the weekend they took that cap off and last night they put on a shiny new cap, 150,000 pounds worth, that has valves inside of it. And the installation of that went very smoothly, and valves, of course, you can turn on and off. And they plan to turn those valves off later today, perhaps. And the final one they'll close really slowly to make sure that they're not causing more problems than they're solving. And they will watch what's happening underground.

Basically you can think of this as a garden hose nozzle, those valves as a nozzle. If you gradually crank it shut and the hose is good, the water will stay in the hose and the pressure will build up inside the hose. And if the hose is not good, it'll spray out wherever it's leaking some place else down the hose. So that's kind of the analogy of what they're doing with the valve at the top and the well that's going down into the Gulf of Mexico.

SIEGEL: So this is what's to be tested. How will BP know if the test is in fact working?

HARRIS: Well, they have all sorts of pressure measuring gizmos inside this cap that will allow them to actually measure the pressure inside, just the way you can when you're holding a garden hose, you can feel if that pressure is building up. They can actually measure this very accurately. They also have been running a research vessel back and forth over the site and they're using acoustic signals to measure what's going on under the seabed.

Apparently what they're doing is they can actually measure how much fluid is in the sediment below. And if they come back a little while later and there's more fluid in the sediment, they better worry their well is leaking. But if they don't see any changes, that's a good sign.

SIEGEL: Are they worried that they could actually cause more damage to the blown out well?

HARRIS: That is definitely a concern, which is why they'll shut off the well slowly and monitor it carefully as they go. If the tests do end up creating new paths for oil to come to the surface, that will be a much more difficult problem for them to fix than they have now. The federal government is down there in droves today. The energy secretary and other federal officials are down there keeping a close eye on things to make sure that things don't go south.

SIEGEL: Okay, worst case, let's say this doesn't work, what do they do next?

HARRIS: Well, if that happens, they will actually just open up the pipes again and the oil will once again start flowing into the ocean. They do already have two pipes connected to ships on the surface that they can gradually ramp up again and capture some of that oil. So that's good. And then they have another cap standing by that they could put right on top of the well and carry more up to this third ship. So that will also help stanch the flow.

In a week or two they can also increase the capacity even further with additional ships. So they'll basically try to capture it up again.

SIEGEL: And best case, let's say everything works well, when does all this terrible catastrophe, when does it all come to a close?

HARRIS: Well, best case is they could actually just leave the valves closed if they actually hold in the pressure and the well looks pretty solid, that could be it in terms of the flow of the well. Of course, that's a temporary solution because in order to make it permanent, they need to finish the relief well they're working on. That will be used to pump cement to the bottom of the blown out well and seal it up permanently. That's what we're waiting for. That's still scheduled for the end of the month or possibly into August.

And of course, let's not forget that there's a huge amount of oil still on the Gulf. There are 600 skimmers out there trying to skim it up. They're planning to burn it. They're still cleaning beaches and so on. So even if they are able to stop the flow of oil, this problem is not going to disappear anytime soon.

SIEGEL: Richard, one last question. If you know, this 150,000-pound cap, is it custom built for this particular job, and do we know when BP began building it?

HARRIS: It is custom built. Apparently they've been thinking about doing it for a quite a while and it has taken a while for them to actually build it. Theyve actually done a lot of dry runs on dry ground to make sure that it would actually work. Really, a lot of careful testing. And it seems as though watching the procedures over the weekend, it actually worked incredibly smoothly getting it installed.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Richard.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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