Oil Well Capped, But For How Long?
LIANE HANSEN, Host:
NPR's Richard Harris is in the studio with the latest. Richard, BP closed the cap as part of a test to see what shape the well is in deep under the seafloor. Tell us the latest, what they know now.
HARRIS: They are seeing some small bubbles coming out of a pipe near the wellhead. And there's an ROV down there this morning, one of these remotely operated vehicles, robotic submarines, sampling that. It looked to me like they were doing that. And so I think we'll get some more information about that. But BP says from what they can tell so far, they suspect it's just biological material rotting in the mud and not gas from 13,000 feet down.
HANSEN: Well, help us understand the conflicting statements between BP and the government about whether the well will be opened up again.
HARRIS: And this morning, BP executive Doug Suttles said nobody, including the federal government, wants to see more oil spilling into the Gulf.
M: We're hopeful that if the encouraging signs continue, we'll be able to continue the integrity test all the way to the point that we get the well killed. So right now, there is no target set to open the well back up to flow, but that remains a possibility if we saw signs during the test that require us to.
HARRIS: So, it's actually a little difficult to tell if there's actually a big debate between BP and the government about what to do, or whether the government didn't choose its words all that carefully in its press release last night. But clearly, as Mr. Suttles said, if there are signs of trouble, everyone agrees - open the well.
HANSEN: If they do open up the well, though, how much oil will spill before they can get it piped up to the ships?
HARRIS: Well, the oil in the well is under way too much pressure just to put it in the pipes, as I mentioned. So first they would have to vent it directly into the ocean. Mr. Suttles said that would take about three days of spilling to do that, because as they gradually ramp up collection. And that would get them to collecting about 50,000 barrels a day, which are what the ships on hand have the capability of handling. However, it's possible that there's more oil than that and if there is, they'd have to bring in more ships and that will take a couple of weeks. So there could be a couple of weeks of oil spilling, depending upon how much oil is coming out of the well.
HANSEN: Yeah, that's an important question - how much oil is coming out of the well. Do you have any idea how much oil has already flowed into the Gulf by now?
HARRIS: Well, the government estimate is 35 to 60,000 barrels a day has been coming out of the well, based on video reviews and other methods that don't directly measure the flow. It's interesting, though, if they do end up piping oil up to the surface, they can finally measure the flow once and for all, definitively, once they capture it on the ship. So that would be good. Although, it's also true it could've changed - the flow rate could have changed over time, so that tells us what it is now, it doesn't necessarily tell us what it was like 80 days ago.
HANSEN: Or what it will be in the future.
HARRIS: Right. Well, we hope it will be nothing in the future.
HANSEN: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, thanks a lot for coming in.
HARRIS: A pleasure, as always.
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