Oil Well Capped, But For How Long?

Government officials are continuing to monitor the cap on BP's blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil is no longer flowing into the Gulf, but it's not clear whether the well is sealed for good. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Richard Harris about the latest developments.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The cap on the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico is still holding in the oil. But there are mixed messages about how long that cap will stay on. BP says it hopes to keep it there until they've plugged the well permanently. But yesterday, the government announced that at some point it would end the test and tell BP to open up the valves on that cap. That will at least temporarily send oil gushing back into the sea, but it will also reduce the risk of an undersea blowout deep inside the well.

NPR's Richard Harris is in the studio with the latest. Richard, BP closed the cap as part of a test to see what shape the well is in deep under the seafloor. Tell us the latest, what they know now.

HARRIS: Well, BP this morning gave us a morning update. And they said the well looks good still. The pressure is holding. They're surveying the seafloor with cameras and sonar and they're not seeing any oil come up. That's good. They're also using deep penetrating surveys to look deep underground and they're not seeing anything alarming there either. So that looks good.

They are seeing some small bubbles coming out of a pipe near the wellhead. And there's an ROV down there this morning, one of these remotely operated vehicles, robotic submarines, sampling that. It looked to me like they were doing that. And so I think we'll get some more information about that. But BP says from what they can tell so far, they suspect it's just biological material rotting in the mud and not gas from 13,000 feet down.

HANSEN: Well, help us understand the conflicting statements between BP and the government about whether the well will be opened up again.

HARRIS: Well, I'll do what I can on that. Let me start with the statement yesterday that was issued by national incident commander Thad Allen. He said, quote, "When this test is eventually stopped, we will immediately return to containment," closed quote. Now, containment means capturing the oil and piping it up to ships on the surface. But is also means spilling oil into the Gulf for at least three days, possibly longer, because you can't just go from where you are to the ships without spilling some.

So, now BP's take on this is as long as the well is holding up fine and there's no sign of trouble, let's just leave it shut in.

And this morning, BP executive Doug Suttles said nobody, including the federal government, wants to see more oil spilling into the Gulf.

Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (Chief Operating Officer, Exploration and Production, BP America, Inc.): We're hopeful that if the encouraging signs continue, we'll be able to continue the integrity test all the way to the point that we get the well killed. So right now, there is no target set to open the well back up to flow, but that remains a possibility if we saw signs during the test that require us to.

HARRIS: So, it's actually a little difficult to tell if there's actually a big debate between BP and the government about what to do, or whether the government didn't choose its words all that carefully in its press release last night. But clearly, as Mr. Suttles said, if there are signs of trouble, everyone agrees - open the well.

HANSEN: If they do open up the well, though, how much oil will spill before they can get it piped up to the ships?

HARRIS: Well, the oil in the well is under way too much pressure just to put it in the pipes, as I mentioned. So first they would have to vent it directly into the ocean. Mr. Suttles said that would take about three days of spilling to do that, because as they gradually ramp up collection. And that would get them to collecting about 50,000 barrels a day, which are what the ships on hand have the capability of handling. However, it's possible that there's more oil than that and if there is, they'd have to bring in more ships and that will take a couple of weeks. So there could be a couple of weeks of oil spilling, depending upon how much oil is coming out of the well.

HANSEN: Yeah, that's an important question - how much oil is coming out of the well. Do you have any idea how much oil has already flowed into the Gulf by now?

HARRIS: Well, the government estimate is 35 to 60,000 barrels a day has been coming out of the well, based on video reviews and other methods that don't directly measure the flow. It's interesting, though, if they do end up piping oil up to the surface, they can finally measure the flow once and for all, definitively, once they capture it on the ship. So that would be good. Although, it's also true it could've changed - the flow rate could have changed over time, so that tells us what it is now, it doesn't necessarily tell us what it was like 80 days ago.

HANSEN: Or what it will be in the future.

HARRIS: Right. Well, we hope it will be nothing in the future.

HANSEN: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, thanks a lot for coming in.

HARRIS: A pleasure, as always.

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