Hydraulic Leak Delays Test Ahead Of 'Static Kill'

BP could begin plugging its damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday. The oil company plans to pump heavy fluid down into the well, and — in the lingo of the oil and gas industry — "kill it."

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This could be the day that BP plugs its damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil company says it plans to pump heavy fluid down into the well, and in the lingo of the gas and oil industry: kill it. Also today, BP has a better idea of the scope of the disaster and the fines it will have to pay.

We're going to catch with all of this with NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, who's been covering this story from the beginning. He's in our studios.

Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay, the plan to kill the well, as it's put - how's that going to work?

HARRIS: Well, you start with a huge pile of heavy fluid called drilling mud, and it's up on a ship. You take pumps - they're giant pumps on a ship, also. You pump it down 5,000 feet through the water column, and it plugs right into -these pipes plug right in to the blowout preventer, which is down on the seafloor. You very gently turn up the volume of this pressure, and the mud gets - very slowly starts to push in. And...

INSKEEP: Basically, it's like clogging a drain, pretty much.

HARRIS: Like clogging a drain. They call this bullheading, which is a great term, because you can just think of bull's head pushing against something. And they basically want to push the oil that's in the well right now down gently, but firmly and continuously, till it get all the way to the reservoir - 35,000 feet below the seafloor. And if they can do that with the mud, then think about it, you have 13,000 feet of mud stacked up there.

It's heavy enough that, basically, it neutralizes the pressure that's been up in the well all the time. And so the well stops flowing. And that's it. It's killed.

INSKEEP: How is that different from the effort to kill the well with drilling mud that was used back earlier in the summer, with no successful result?

HARRIS: Yeah, the so-called top kill...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...which was an utter failure. It is the same principle, pretty much. You want to put heavy stuff in the well and push the oil back down. The difference is now they have this cap on top of the well, so with the top kill, essentially, the mud they put in was just immediately spewed out of the well by the oil that was in there, and it just ended up on the seafloor.

INSKEEP: Like a volcano.

HARRIS: Yeah, exactly. And so basically, that didn't work because there was nothing to hold it in. Now they have this cap, they can hold the mud in place. And so this seems to be something that has a very high degree of likelihood of success.

INSKEEP: Are there still some risks here, though?

HARRIS: There are always risks, although they seem to be pretty calm about this one, because they only have to turn the pressure by just a little bit in order to move the mud down. And so they're not terribly concerned about doing damage to the well.

INSKEEP: And then having gotten the mud in there, you put cement on top of the mud?

HARRIS: Yup, there are a couple of plans for putting in the cement, 'cause that's what you ultimately want to do to make sure it's sealed permanently. The mud will sit there, but you obviously want cement caps. And one way you can do it is you can do the same thing. You can put a slug of cement on the top of the well and gradually push it down. And again, you would want to push it all the way down into the bottom of the well, if you could do that.

Or, remember, we have that relief well that's within like a hundred feet of intercepting at the very bottom of the well. And the original plan, actually, was to pour cement down, pump cement down the relief well and plug using the relief well. They might actually do a combination of both, or one or the other. That remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Richard Harris on this day when BP might be able to plug this well, permanently, in the Gulf of Mexico.

And, Richard, I'm glad you're here, because a few months ago, you assembled some scientists, independent scientists, to try to estimate how much oil was actually coming out of this well. And now we have from the government a little better idea of how much oil really did come out. How close were you?

HARRIS: Actually those scientists turned out to be remarkably accurate. They estimated about 70,000 barrels of oil and gas a day coming out of the well. The new federal estimate is that something like 62,000 barrels of oil were coming out of the well at the time. They were really almost right on the money. It's quite remarkable. And this was just looking at really raw video that was not high quality. They just had some pretty sophisticated ways of looking at that and figuring out how much oil was flowing.

So let's put these numbers in a little bit of perspective. Now, if you add up over the 86 days, the amount of oil has gradually decreased coming out of the well. But the federal government now estimates that over the entire time, about five million barrels of oil came out the well. BP captured about one million of it - well, not quite. But that left about four million that went into the Gulf. And that's a pretty big number from the standpoint of the ecosystem, but it only represents about five hours of oil consumption in the U.S.

INSKEEP: Wow. Two quick questions, though. How much do have to pay when you spill that many millions of barrels of oil in the ocean?

HARRIS: Well, it's - the fines started at $1,000 per barrel, up to $4,300 per barrel, depending upon negligence, and so on, like that.

INSKEEP: Billions of dollars.

HARRIS: Billions of - so it could be $18 billion, something along those lines.

INSKEEP: Eighteen billion dollars. Well, that raises another question having to do with money, Richard Harris, and also having to do with oil. There are still millions of barrels underneath the Gulf in this well that's being plugged as soon as today, right?

HARRIS: That's correct. And there's been a lot of speculation about whether BP would go back in and try to get it. They do have - they've drilled these two relief wells that are tantalizingly close to this reservoir. But yesterday, somebody at BP, a vice president was asked: Are you going to go after that oil with those relief wells? He said, absolutely not. We're going to seal it up, and we're going to leave them alone.

INSKEEP: Not worth the PR costs or...

HARRIS: Apparently not.

INSKEEP: ...or the risk. Or the risk.

Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris this morning.

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