BP: Mud Pumped Into Gulf Well Holds Back Oil

BP says it has killed its blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. A column of heavy fluid now fills the well, and oil is once again trapped in its underground reservoir. This is the result of an operation called a "static kill," but there's still more work to be done.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

BP says it has killed its blown-out well in the Gulf. A column of heavy fluid now fills the well and oil is once again trapped in its underground reservoir. This is the result of an operation called a static kill. There's still more work to be done, but for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon blowout, BP says it is in full control of this well.

And a top White House aid says, this morning, that three-quarters of the oil that spewed out for weeks, has been eliminated.

Here to talk about all of these developments is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. And Richard, you've become a regular guest on this program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICHARD HARRIS: Yes indeed, Renee.

MONTAGNE: BP is calling its achievement, overnight, a significant milestone. Tell us what, exactly, they did?

HARRIS: Well, yesterday afternoon, BP started pumping heavy fluid called drilling mud, from a ship on the surface down into the well. The idea was to gently press this down on top of the oil that was in the well and force the oil, slowly but surely, back into the rock where it came from. They pressed on it like this for about eight hours, and the well is now filled up, all two and a half miles worth, with this dense fluid - this very dense fluid. And it weighs so much, the oil actually can't come up.

So, at this point, they could actually remove the blowout preventer, the capping stack, and everything else that's on top of the well and the oil wouldn't flow out - of course, they're not going to do that.

MONTAGNE: And, they still need to seal off the well, permanently, with cement. At least, that's what we've been hearing. So, there is that next step. I mean -how do they go about doing that?

HARRIS: That's right, the mud is - stops the well from flowing, but it doesn't create the permanent seal. And so, the question is how to put the cement in. And there is a debate over that. One possibility is to put the cement on top of the fluid that's in there right now, and push it down the well, just the way they pushed the fluid down. And that would force the fluid itself into the rock formation.

Now, some geologists are a little concerned that if that's not done really carefully, all that heavy fluid could actually create fractures in the formation. But oil companies do this procedure fairly routinely, and so it's not that big a concern.

The other option is actually to complete the relief well, which only has about a hundred feet to go, and pump the cement in from the relief well. That will connect with the very bottom of the blown-out well. The risk there is that the relief well might miss on the first try and that operation could be interrupted with hurricanes. So, they actually might end up doing both. And we'll get probably a better sense of that today. And in fact, I should also mention that there's a - that's still not the end of the story, because to really abandon the well, they're going to need to put a second cement plug in at the top of the well - and they haven't even gotten to talking to us about that yet. But that's also going to be another tricky procedure.

MONTAGNE: And this morning, we're hearing about the government's new estimate of how much oil is left in the environment. And it's a sort of stunning, what they're saying, which is - I'm going to let you tell us - but it was something like 75 percent seems to have disappeared.

HARRIS: Yeah, well the Obama administration hasn't actually released the report yet, formally, but this morning they did send an official off to the morning TV talk shows to talk about its main conclusion. And here's White House energy aid, Carol Browner, on "Good Morning America."

Ms. CAROL BROWNER (Director of White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy): The scientists are telling us about 25 percent was not captured or evaporated, or taken care of by Mother Nature. And so that will continue to weather, Mother Nature will continue to break it down. But some of it may come on shore as weathered, tar-balled, and those will be cleaned up.

MONTAGNE: So, about 25 percent, and she sounds like she doesn't seem like -feel like - that's a big problem. Does this sound about right to you?

HARRIS: Well, we have been reporting that there are no huge sheets of oil still out on the water, floating ashore. And it's true, that a lot of it has evaporated, 'cause this is very light oil, from Louisiana. BP has also captured about 16 percent, according to the latest government figures. And of course, there were like 400 controlled burns of this, and a small fraction of it was also skimmed up. So, a lot has actually been cleared out of the water.

But saying that only one quarter of it is left, is still saying that that there's a million barrels, or so, out there - and that's four or five times the Exxon Valdez spill. So, that's not nothin'. And there are still big questions about what happened to all the oil that got dispersed into the Gulf - she's sort of saying that that's disappeared, but we don't really know where that is. We know that the good news, of course, is it didn't wash up into the delicate marshlands, and we know that eventually, bacteria will break it down. But in fact, right now, biologists don't really know what has happened to it, how long it will take for the bacteria out there to eat it up, and what it might do to fish larvae and other things out on the Gulf. So it's going to take a couple of years, I think, of more scientific research, really, to understand what happened to all that oil that just stayed under the water.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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