BP Nears Permanent Fix For Leaking Oil Well

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With the weather cooperating once again, BP is moving forward with its plan to plug the damaged oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The well could be permanently plugged with cement by the end of next week.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to get more details now about BP's plans to stop the oil from flowing for good. Thousands of people are still at work in the Gulf trying to do just that. And while Tropical Storm Bonnie slowed the effort down as it swept through, the end is in sight.

Barring bad weather, the well could be plugged for good by the end of next week. NPR's Richard Harris is here with some details. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, the well has been capped for 12 days now and counting. It's not leaking. But that has always been described as a temporary solution. Let's talk now about making it permanent.

HARRIS: Sure. Well, BP plans to attack the well from both above and below. The main relief well has only about 100 feet to go and they're going to use that to punch into the bottom of the well to pour in cement.

But they also have decided to attack it from above, and that means they'll take the same equipment they used for the top kill operation - remember that - and try it again, pumping heavy fluid into the well to fill it up. You can sort of think of this as a mud cork.

Now, the top kill did not work because the oil and gas pushed the mud up and out into the ocean. But now that the well has that cap on it, that presumably won't happen. And depending upon the condition of the well, they can actually plug it with cement from the top, not just mud. And they call this a static kill. We'll hear that phrase, I predict.

Since the oil is not moving in the well right now, and they're actually planning to do that starting next week.

MONTAGNE: But, Richard, if they're planning to plug it from the top now, what is the point of finishing the relief well that we've all been waiting on for the past three months?

HARRIS: Well, the static kill from the top will make the operations of the relief well easier to do. It's also true that they don't know where all the oil and gas is flowing. There's a pipe within a pipe in this well, and the static kill will mostly affect the inner pipe. So, the relief well will first drill into the space between those two pipes. So, if the oil is flowing between those two pipes, the relief well will actually get to it. That will be filled with cement.

And if there's still oil flowing in the inner pipe or if there's still need for them to work further on the relief well, they can drill into the inner pipe with the relief well, fill that cement and that should be really the end of the story full stop.

MONTAGNE: Well that would, of course, be great news, but what about all the oil that's already poured out of the well into the Gulf?

HARRIS: Well, Tropical Storm Bonnie helped a bit there. It pushed a lot of the oil around on the surface. Some of it went north, which is, unfortunately, towards land and towards the west. And that pushed some of the oil into the marshes and onto the beaches, particularly on the barrier islands.

The government maps of the area showed there's, though, actually a lot less oil left on the surface. Mostly it's light patches of sheen and a few areas of medium oil but no real big clumps of oil, at least large expanses of that.

Oceanographers expected that the storm would churn some of that oil into the water, and it actually appears to have done so. There are also those clouds of oil we keep hearing about under sea, the plumes if you will. And so there's a fair amount of oil still in the water.

And it's important to remember that in high concentrations, the stuff is toxic. It could be doing damage to marine life. But over the long run, bacteria will eventually eat it there in the water.

MONTAGNE: And given that the end is in sight, just curious, will we ever know how much oil actually spilled every day into the Gulf?

HARRIS: Not with so much accuracy, unfortunately. The official government estimate - if you take the daily estimate and multiply it by the number of days of the spill, that puts the total spewed somewhere between three million and five million barrels. That's a pretty big range though.

The cap that was installed on the well has pressure gauges and data from those gauges could be used to refine the answer somewhat, but not really enough to give us a precise number. So, the best hope actually might be to go back to the videos of the oil and gas plumes.

And in fact, scientists are doing that. They're reviewing those and refining their estimates based on the velocity of those flows and more details. And that could take a couple of months before we know. But one thing we're sure of it's a lot of oil.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Richard Harris.

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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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