By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; 4:43 PM
BP inserted a new tube Sunday into the damaged oil pipe that has been gushing oil from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for three and a half weeks in a bid to capture as much of the oil as possible.
The four-inch wide new pipe was inserted into the broken section known as the riser, from which the majority of the oil has been leaking. If it works, the inserted pipe could keep a substantial amount of the oil out of the sea by siphoning it up a mile-long pipe to the Discoverer Enterprise drillship and then to nearby barges.
"So far it's working extremely well," said BP senior vice president for exploration and production Kent Wells. He said the company has been able to flare, or burn, some of the natural gas at the surface, an indication that the insertion pipe is working. He said it would not be clear how much of the oil can be captured for another day or two, but he called it "a positive step forward."
"As of now there are still reasonably substantial amounts of oil coming out" of the damaged pipeline into the ocean, said Andrew Gowers, an executive vice president at BP. "That is in part a factor of the pressure we are bringing to bear in producing the oil." He added that the amount of oil brought up the new line would "be steadily increased." He cautioned "this is a gradual, carefully calibrated process aimed at steadily reducing the leak rather than a magic bullet."
It also remained unclear how the effort to capture oil from the main leak would affect a smaller leak closer to the well.
The company's efforts to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico come as the existing slick has begun to touch shorelines and come closer to currents that could carry plumes of oil suspended beneath the surface out of the Gulf to areas much further away, including the Florida Keys.
Late Saturday night, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a 72-hour forecast that warned, "As the winds weaken, ocean models indicate the southern edge of the plume could begin moving more to the SW and potentially into the Loop Current."
BP said that while it tries to siphon oil up its new insertion pipe, it was also making preparations to "kill" the damaged well at the sea surface by pumping drilling mud at higher pressure and weight than the oil. The mud would be pumped at more than 30,000 horsepower engine through three-inch hoses and through "choke" valves at the bottom of the blowout preventer near the sea floor. He said the valves could shoot up to 40 barrels a minute of mud into the well.
"We'll be able to pump much faster than the well can flow," he said. "It's about us outrunning the well."
Wells said the company had brought 50,000 barrels of the mud, a mixture of clay and other substances, for the effort, which he said should be far more than needed. He said that the much ridiculed "junk shot," in which golf balls and shredded tires would be fired into the blowout preventer, would only be used if the drilling mud were being forced upward and needed to be blocked.
Wells said it would be another week to 10 days before preparations for what the company has called the "top kill" effort would be complete.
In the meantime, BP pressed ahead with its insertion pipe, which has been compared to inserting a straw into another straw. BP's pipe is somewhat more sophisticated than a straw; it has rubber components to seal off the pipe as much as possible from sea water while letting oil and gas push their way in to the new pipe.
BP is also pumping 120 degree water and methanol into the long pipe in an effort to prevent the formation of crystals of gas hydrates. Those hydrates -- combinations of natural gas and sea water at high pressures and low temperatures -- form slush-like crystals that can block pipelines or even lift heavy objects off the sea floor. They were one reason for the failure of an earlier effort to lower a 98-ton steel coffer dam over the main leak site.
Once the oil, gas and water mixture reaches ships on the surface, it will be processed and separated into different components. Gas is already being flared, and the oil will be loaded onto barges or tankers. Sunday's insertion was BP's second effort. Late Saturday night after the new tube was inserted, it was yanked out after the umbilical cord of a remotely-operated vehicle got entangled with the tube's line to the surface, according to sources familiar with the project.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report