ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the man in charge of supervising the Gulf oil spill, says BP's capacity to collect oil from the blown-out well could double by this weekend if the weather cooperates. A vessel called the Helix has been delayed by bad weather for more than a week already. When it's operational, it should be able to collect up to 25,000 barrels of oil a day.
I spoke with BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles earlier today about the company's latest cleanup plan.
Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (COO, BP): The current forecast is for the vessel to start up this weekend. What it will do is, it'll take our capacity to recover oil from 25,000 barrels a day to 50,000 barrels a day. So that'll essentially double what we can capture now.
BLOCK: The numbers, Mr. Suttles, are interesting here because, of course, BP at the outset of the explosions said that the gusher was 1,000 barrels a day, then moved it up to 5,000. The government now saying it's 60,000 barrels a day. How do you reconcile the number that you are collecting and projected to collect with the estimates the early estimates of what, how much oil is coming out of this well?
Mr. SUTTLES: Yeah, Melissa. I think if you go back in time, one of the things we've all said - the Coast Guard, ourselves, NOAA, everyone has said - is it's extremely difficult to know how much oil is coming out of this well. And the reasons for that is we can't put a person down there, we can't meter it. The techniques being used and there's many, in particular by the government's FRTG group - are wide. But even their estimates, every time they look at it, they tend to have to adjust those because of those challenges.
BLOCK: But Mr. Suttles, there were scientists early on who estimated a flow rate of exactly what it's turning out to be right now. It wasn't hard to do, and it didn't take a long time.
Mr. SUTTLES: Well, I don't think we know what it is right now. We know it's above 25,000 barrels a day. That's clear because that's the amount we're capturing today. I think if you look back, first of all, it was the Unified Command who always put out estimates, and these are numbers - we got our folks together with theirs, with Coast Guard, NOAA and others, and said at the time this is our best estimate.
What's important to look at, though, is how does it affect the response? And I can tell you from the beginning, all of us have essentially gone flat out. We actually looked at this thing and said, this is a terrible event, and it's critical that we apply every resource we can find to this problem. And we've done that. So the response wasn't predicated on what that estimate of the flow rate was.
BLOCK: I'm confused, though. If you had gone flat out, why weren't these vessels in place long ago? Why is the Helix just now getting hooked up? And how much of that was a real underestimation of how much oil was coming out of that well, and what you thought you'd need in terms of resources?
Mr. SUTTLES: Well, what we've done with all of the containment options is, we've been bringing in the resources, the assets, the equipment as fast as we could get it. These things were not in the area. They've had to have major work to make them work. We've had to do things like install things on a seabed, build floating riser systems. And we've been doing these things as quickly as we can.
In fact, after we finish the Helix producer, we have more vessels - we're going to have ready both to hook up, and to have as redundancy and backup in the system. So we've been working that as fast as we could. It wasn't actually that we thought the rate was a certain amount and therefore, we had enough.
BLOCK: Do you understand, though, Mr. Suttles, the concern from people who say that BP has minimized the extent of what's going on in the Gulf and has not responded quickly enough, was caught flatfooted here?
Mr. SUTTLES: Well, you know, I clearly hear that a lot, and I understand the frustrations with that. But if you look at what we've done here, I mean, just today we have 45,000 people working on this. We have almost 6,000 vessels. We've spent over $3.2 billion so far. I mean, I think this shows the level of commitment to getting this thing fixed as fast as we can, to responding in the right way.
I mean, no one's ever done anything close to this before, and we've been going at this thing flat out since the beginning.
BLOCK: You did, though, make projections even before the explosion of the well in a filing with federal regulators. Back in March, BP said it could skim and remove nearly 500,000 barrels of oil every day if there were to be a major spill. And in fact, now, more than two months after the explosion, you're about 37 million barrels short of that. How do you explain that huge discrepancy in what you said you could do, and what you've actually done?
Mr. SUTTLES: Well, you know, Melissa, I think once this event is finished, there will be so many things people look back on and say, what have we learned, and what do we need to do differently? At the moment, you can imagine - and the people out here in the Gulf Coast, I think, want me to work on the problem I have right now, which is how do I actually clean this thing up as quickly as I can? How do I mitigate the damages?
So it's a good question, but I think the important point right now is, is what do I do to minimize these impacts? What do I do to collect the oil offshore? What do I do, when it gets ashore, to make sure we clean it up as quickly as possible?
BLOCK: Is it fair to say that that promise of what you could do was wildly off?
Mr. SUTTLES: Well, I don't know. What I can tell you is, though, is when this spill is done, the capability of the industry and the government to respond to something like this will be very different than it was on the day it started. I mean, we're not only fighting this spill with the tools that were available to us at the time, we've been adding and trying new things constantly. I mean, many people are familiar with the supertanker concept, which a test is being completed today.
We're launching a whole new skimmer system on Thursday, tomorrow. And those things will be available to the world, to the industry after this event's finished.
BLOCK: That's BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, talking with me from New Orleans. And tomorrow, we'll have the second part of my interview with Mr. Suttles. We'll talk about the company's financial viability.