BP Delays Critical Tests On New Well Cap

Officials have delayed the start of testing of a new cap on the leaking BP oil well. BP and federal officials did not say what prompted the decision or when the testing would begin on the new, tighter-fitting cap.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

This morning BP announced it's hoping it will be able to shut off the well that's spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico sometime today. The company has installed a cap that is sealed to the top of the well, and that's the beginning of what they're working on today.

NPR's Richard Harris joins us now to explain it all.

And Richard, just briefly take us back. What is the cap doing and then what's going to happen today?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, the cap, Renee, has a series of valves on it. And what they're hoping to do is actually close those valves and stop the flow of oil into the Gulf. And they actually thought they would perform this experiment yesterday, and so it was a bit of a surprise that they didn't. Everything seemed to be going so smoothly. They had installed the cap on Monday, which was a whole day ahead of schedule. And BP official Kent Wells says the team that was dealing with the technical issues was ready to press on yesterday. But in a press conference this morning, Wells said that the scientific team decided they needed just a little bit more time to think it through.

KENT WELLS: This test is so important that a decision was taken to give them another 24 hours to make sure that this was the best possible test procedure we could execute. We wanted to make sure that there was no question in any(ph) mind that we would learn the most from this, that we'd minimize risk.

HARRIS: So now they're planning to get together around noon. And assuming their issues are now resolved, they can begin the test today.

MONTAGNE: Joe, explain to us exactly what this test is going to do. I gather it has something to do with a concern that they need to get the pressure right in the well.

HARRIS: That's correct. What they were hoping to do is basically do a series of tests to make sure that the well is strong enough. The idea is once you close the valves, the pressure will build up inside the well, the oil will stop flowing out, and as - the well will - you know, it's 13,000 feet deep. And so the question is, will it hold all that pressure when you close off the top of the well? So they wanted to study that pressure closely to see what condition the well is in.

You can sort of think of this like turning off a nozzle on a garden hose, you know? If the hose is in good shape, when you turn off the nozzle the pressure will just build up in the hose and the hose will get nice and stiff. If there's a leak in the hose though, you will be able to tell because the hose won't get quite as stiff. Well, the same idea is going on here, except it's not a vinyl garden hose, it's a well made of steel and cement.

MONTAGNE: And in the meantime, what is happening with the oil?

HARRIS: It is still flowing into the Gulf, a fair amount of it is. But some of it is also being collected. They have two ships on the surface that are collecting oil. And together, they processed about 17,000 barrels of oil yesterday. It's a little bit less than average but not horribly lower. And those systems will be improved if they are in fact needed after the test. But if the test works, the oil will stop flowing entirely and they won't - the ships will no longer be needed.

MONTAGNE: Of course, the ultimate fix - at least - so BP and everyone hopes - is that relief well. What's the status of that?

HARRIS: The relief well is very close. It's horizontally within four or five feet of the wild well. They still need to drill down about another 100 feet to the point where it will intersect. But actually that effort is temporarily on hold because they made a decision that there's a small risk that during the pressure testing that that could end up interfering with - with that well. Actually some small possibility that oil and gas could actually go up the relief well. So they want to make sure that won't happen, so they decided we'll just stop drilling. So that puts it back a day or two, but not seriously.

MONTAGNE: But still, there's plenty of oil still gushing out of there and finding its way to land, to the beaches.

HARRIS: That's true. And stopping the oil won't make that oil magically disappear that's already out there. And one small footnote here is they're running out of those white Tyvek suits that people need for cleanup crews. So that's sort of a surprising little twist to the whole thing.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris.

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