MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Oil engineers are pursuing several strategies to bring the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico under control. One idea is to lower a steel dome the size of a boxcar down to the seafloor to capture oil as it flows out of the broken pipe.
As NPR's Richard Harris reports, that's a risky proposition in the deep and roiling waters of the Gulf.
RICHARD HARRIS: In a construction yard in southern Louisiana right now, engineers are working on a 125-ton steel box, four stories tall, that they hope will staunch the flow of oil from what used to be the deepwater horizon rig. BP spokesman Daren Beaudo describes the concept.
Mr. DAREN BEAUDO (Spokesman, BP): This is simply large domes, if you will, that would be lowered down on top of the leak and it would have a piping system that would carry the oil up to a vessel on the surface.
HARRIS: The idea is to sink this giant metal box into the mud around the worst of the leaks. The oil would run up a pipe at the top and flow into a tanker when it reaches the surface. Natural gas in the mix would be flared, or burned, once it saw the light of day.
Bud Danenberger, a retired government official who's monitoring the situation closely, says luckily there's already a tanker on hand outfitted for these kinds of tasks.
Mr. BUD DANENBERGER (Retired Government Official): So, it'll be very well-equipped to handle these volumes. It's kind of ideal for this situation.
HARRIS: Once the oil and gas gets to the surface, it's standard work. But getting the dome to settle over the leak is tough, and Danenberger says it'll also be tricky to keep the pipeline to the surface intact through 5,000 feet of water.
Mr. DANENBERGER: Dealing with the currents and weather conditions. So those would be the principal challenges I would see.
HARRIS: The dome technique is actually in use, but only on very small leaks such as in the Santa Barbara Channel. It was pioneered in 1980, when the Ixtoc well, off the coast of Mexico, blew out. It spewed huge quantities of oil into the Gulf for nine months before they finally tried using a capture dome like this one.
Mr. DANENBERGER: And that was just a quick rush attempt. Not much experience or practice. And it didn't work too well on that.
HARRIS: So, do you think it's going got work?
Mr. DANENBERGER: Well, there is certainly some good people working on it, so I'm optimistic.
HARRIS: But even the best-case scenario would be to lower the first dome to the seafloor sometime next week. And if that works, they'd need to install at least two others to capture leaks from other sections of pipe. Even then, it's a temporary solution.
In the meantime, BP is trying to make the leaking oil less hazardous to wildlife. They're pumping what's essentially detergent deep into the sea to break up the globs of oil near the source.
Piers Chapman from Texas A&M University says these chemical dispersants as they're called are typically used on the surface.
Professor PIERS CHAPMAN (Texas A&M University): Because the well blowout is a mile underwater, dispersing the oil when it's down in the deep Gulf, which is relatively a biological desert, is actually a much better place to do it.
HARRIS: But his technique, like installing domes, is uncharted territory as a spill response.
Prof. CHAPMAN: It's a really interesting experiment. And I'll be very interested in seeing the results from it.
HARRIS: And in the meantime, BP spokesman Daren Beaudo says the company is still using underwater robots to try to shut off the leak by getting the emergency cutoff system, called the blowout preventer, to finally do its job.
Mr. BEAUDO: Our objective there, because it is the simplest and most direct way to stop this leak, is to keep working until we're either successful or have exhausted all possibilities.
HARRIS: Outside experts have now seen photos of the malfunctioning blowout preventer, distributed by the Coast Guard. Robert Bea from the University of California at Berkeley says it doesn't look good.
Professor ROBERT BEA (University of California at Berkeley): Existing blowout preventer, from what we can tell, did in fact attempt to do its job.
HARRIS: The device attempted to crush the pipe to cut off the leak. Unfortunately, parts of the drilling apparatus, called the drill string, were running inside the pipe at that point, so the pipe couldn't be crimped off neatly. A BP spokesman disagrees with that assessment. Even so, the oil company is talking about chopping off the jammed blowout preventer and installing a new one. That would, in the short run at least, create an even bigger gusher on the ocean floor, Professor Bea said.
Prof. BEA: And that's why it's so chancy.
HARRIS: And in any event, BP probably wouldn't be ready to try that for about a month.
Surveying all the options, Piers Chapman from Texas A&M says this much is clear.
Prof. CHAPMAN: It's going to be luck that's involved, as well as technology.
HARRIS: Richard Harris, NPR News.