RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
Engineers and scientists from both the government and BP are still monitoring the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. For now, the government seems satisfied that seepage from the ocean floor and around the temporary cap is nothing to worry about.
Here's the government's point man for the disaster, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.
Admiral THAD ALLEN (U.S. Coast Guard): It is the collective opinion of the folks that are talking about this that the small seepages we are finding right now do not present, at least at this point, any indication that there is a threat to the wellbore. If we think that was going to happen, we would be taking immediate action.
KELLY: The containment system was intended to test the condition of the well that extends 12,000 feet below the floor of the Gulf. But now engineers are hoping that the temporary cap, or plug, could help them come up with a more permanent solution, maybe sooner than expected.
NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca is here with us. Hey, Joe.
JOE PALCA: Hello.
KELLY: Okay, explain - what is this new idea?
PALCA: Well, it's a riff on an old idea, to tell you the truth. So let's just think for a second. So this is a shaft that's running 12,000 feet from the bottom of the Gulf down to this pool of oil that's been - that they've been tapping into, that's been gushing up. And what you want to do basically is get the oil out of that tube and fill it with something that's not going anywhere -cement, drill - drill mud, whatever.
Well, before, when they tried to do this from the top - which is to pour something into the tube and get it to solidify - it wasn't working because the well was spewing oil out. And if you've ever tried to push something into a fire - open a fire hose, a fire plug and the hose is gushing out, pretty hard to push something back down into the fire plug. Now...
KELLY: This was the top kill method that they tried.
PALCA: That's right.
PALCA: That's exactly what its called. It's the top kill. It didn't work. But now it's still an idea that they would start at the top but it's static now -nothing is coming out. So they've got a hose connected. Before they were taking oil out of the hose, now they think maybe they can push some sort of mud or this cement or something into the hole, let it dribble down the tube because it's heavier than the oil, and then build up from the bottom up, and maybe -maybe stop the whole thing.
This is something they hadn't really - they've been thinking about it. They hadn't really been talking about it until yesterday.
KELLY: Still, I mean hearing that they're going to try something reminiscent of top kill doesn't exactly inspire confidence. What are the potential risks there?
PALCA: Well, I mean the risks are A) that it won't work at all. And presumably the other risks are that if they start monkeying around with the various tubes and reversing direction of flow and stuff like that, that something worse could happen. The parts could blow off and then you'd be back at the same place where the oil is flowing unchecked into the Gulf, which is something everybody would like to avoid.
KELLY: Of course. So when are they going to decide whether this is a good idea or not?
PALCA: Well, that goes into a lot of things that Thad Allen was talking about -keeping an idea of whether this - what the integrity of this bore is. Because if they shut it off and underneath it's seeping out into the ocean floor or into that 12,000 feet below the surface, and then it's just going to work its way up to the surface somehow and spill out, and then it will be much harder -if this pipe is not integral, it'll be much harder to block off the flow.
So they have to move slowly and they're going to be monitoring things for several more days. That's what's going to happen.
KELLY: Now, what does all this mean for what we have heard for a while now is suppose to be the permanent solution? This is this relief well that they were going to, that they are still trying...
PALCA: They are - no, they're...
KELLY: ...I guess, to drill in from the sides, way deep underground?
PALCA: Absolutely. They've got two of those going. I've always found the term relief well kind of confusing, because to me it suggests that it's going to relieve the pressure somehow and let the oil come out of these wells. That's not what's happening at all.
The wells are actually deep enough now. They're at the same level as the one that's tapped into the reservoir, just about. What they're going to do is turn sideways and actually puncture the well that's leaking. They're going to poke a hole in it and then - the same idea - instead of pumping this mud or cement in from the top, they're going to pump it in from the bottom and fill the tube up from the bottom, as a way of cutting it off permanently.
So I think when you think of relief wells, it's a relief for the people who are sick of this disaster...
(Soundbite of laughter)
PALCA: ... rather than (unintelligible) pressure.
KELLY: Which would be most - most everyone at this point.
PALCA: Right, exactly.
KELLY: Yeah. And the timeline we've heard for that is still August?
PALCA: Right. They said that the well has - this relief - one of the relief wells has reached the appropriate depth. It now has to turn sideways. It has to be reinforced. It may actually puncture the other well at the end of this month. But then more testing, more checking. They're still talking about August before they can seal this completely using the relief well technique.
KELLY: Okay. Thank you, Joe.
PALCA: You're welcome.
KELLY: That's NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca updating us on the latest in the efforts to stop the flow of oil in the Gulf.
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