New Cap Stops BP Gulf Oil Leak

Tests are being conducted on a new cap that has been placed over the broken oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Engineers want to make sure it can contain the geyser of crude. So far, no oil is spewing from the well. But a BP official is warning that the flow of oil could resume.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And there's skepticism outside the Gulf too about how long the well will stay shut down and apparently for good reason. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris is with us now live to talk about all this. And Richard, BP gave a progress report this morning on how it's all going. What did they say?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, this is a pressure test, of course, to see what condition the well is in, and this morning we learned the pressure is in the gray zone. It's not bad enough to be an immediate worry, but it's not good enough to say the well is just fine.

So they'll spend today analyzing the information more. BP vice president Kent Wells says their undersea rovers have been doing visual surveys and doing sonar surveys of the sea floor, and they see no oil or gas leaking up from the sea floor, so at least that's an encouraging sign, and they're planning to do some more detailed surveys about that later on.

KELLY: Okay, now, assuming that all that goes well, at the end of this testing and analysis period, what happens? Will they go back to trying to collect some of the oil that was coming out of the well?

HARRIS: It depends what they find. And the best case scenario is that the well will simply remain shut. In fact, just a few moments ago President Obama said he still hopes that's an option.

President BARACK OBAMA: This new cap and the additional equipment being placed in the Gulf will be able to contain up to 80,000 barrels a day, which should allow us to capture nearly all the oil until the well is killed.

HARRIS: And that capture scenario would be if they can't simply shut the well down. And so that's that's something that they're weighing today on that.

But unfortunately, no matter what they do, if they can't leave the valve shut, there's going to be a period of time when oil will flow back into the Gulf again. We learned also in this briefing this morning that basically they can't there are pipes currently connected to the side of the blowout preventer, but they can't just sort of flip the valves back on and let the oil back up to the surface.

Unfortunately, they have to open the top of this one of the big valves on top and let the oil go out to get the right amount of pressure in there.

So if they do have to recollect the oil, it won't be, you know at first we'll see more into the Gulf, but eventually they can collect a whole bunch of it. The president mentioned 80,000 barrels a day. The scientific estimates are there's less than that coming up, so that's got a margin of error.

KELLY: Okay, lot's of questions. And I guess one of the other big unknowns, of course, Richard, is the weather, which has complicated operations throughout this ordeal. We're coming up to what's forecast to be a record-breaking hurricane season. I assume planning is going on for how to deal with that.

HARRIS: Yes, that's a major concern as well, because if you can just shut the well down, then you don't have to worry about a hurricane. You can just leave the scene. But if you're collecting oil on the surface, those ships can't stay there through a hurricane, and there's no place for them to accumulate the oil there. So basically for a period of time while the hurricane is passing, the well would just be dispensing oil back into the ocean again.

So that's part of the equation here, is, you know, can they maybe temporarily shut the well if there's a hurricane, or what? I mean that's a that's a very important question that they're wrestling with.

KELLY: And just to remind people what we're seeing now a temporary fix. There's still this permanent solution that they're working on.

HARRIS: That's right. They actually today they've resumed drilling the relief well. They had put that on hold for a second during this test, but they're back to drilling that again.

In the next couple of weeks, it should get there that solution, we hope, will be end of July, sometime in August.

KELLY: Okay, thank you, Richard.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

KELLY: That's NPR's Richard Harris.

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