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BP is being cautious, but there may be some good news at last from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. A collecting cap they put on top of the spewing well last night is now capturing some oil and running it up a pipe to a ship on the surface.
You can still see oil billowing from the broken well, but BP says it plans to gradually increase the amount of oil it captures over the next few days.
NPR's Richard Harris has the story.
RICHARD HARRIS: An otherworldly scene unfolded on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico last night: A white, steel capsule hung from the bottom of a rigid mile-long pipe. The capsule was spewing green fluid out its vents and lit up like some alien spaceship as it gradually moved toward the spewing well. It was propelled by an unseen ship, the Enterprise, which was dragging the pipe and the capsule through the inky, black water.
When the capsule got close to the petroleum fountain, a yellow, robotic submarine helped it make its last quick move into the spewing oil. To the untrained eye, the result looked like anything but a success - oil billowed every which way.
But today, BP official Kent Wells says it was all going according to plan.
Mr. KENT WELLS (Senior Vice President, Exploration and Production, BP): We had gas actually reach up to the Enterprise at 11 o'clock last night. And ever since then, we've been gradually increasing the flow of oil and gas to the surface.
HARRIS: BP resisted the urge to do too much to soon. The steel cap's four oil-belching chimneys remained open, so most of the oil did continue to flood into the waters of the Gulf. BP has learned from past failures that it's better to start slow, and it is only gradually been increasing the flow of oil and gas up the pipe to the surface.
Mr. WELLS: As we do that, we will slowly start closing those valves or chimneys on the top. We don't want to create any pressure inside the cap that would perhaps lift it off. We also don't want to do it so quickly we draw water in.
HARRIS: Water can mix with gas in the oil and cause methane ice crystals to form. Those can quickly clog up the works and bring the entire operation to a halt. Seawater is the enemy here, so they'd much rather see some oil leaking out from below the cap than to have water sipping in through that gap.
Wells says it's unlikely BP will ever be able to capture 100 percent of the oil even in the best of circumstances.
Mr. WELLS: Arguably, there will always be a little oil coming out of the bottom, but that could be a pretty small amount as well.
HARRIS: BP would not say exactly how much oil it has captured so far today. And although they said they hope to capture 90 percent of the oil that's spewing, it will be hard for them to declare that they've reached that goal. That's because the company still shows no outward interest in measuring how much oil is spewing to begin with.
Even so, BP executive Wells was upbeat about what the company accomplished in one of the world's most challenging work environments.
Mr. WELLS: I'm encouraged, but what we always must remember is we now have about 12 hours experience with it. This has never been done at 5,000 feet before. But based on that, I'm quite encouraged.
HARRIS: Federal officials also seem to breathe at least half a sigh of relief. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen is in charge of the federal response.
Admiral THAD ALLEN (U.S. Coast Guard): Generally, progress is being made. And I think we need to caution against over-optimism here. And there's always been adjustments that have been made in the process as we move forward.
HARRIS: BP expects it will need to keep fine-tuning its system for a number of days in order to collect as much oil as it can while minimizing the ever-present risk of a major setback.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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