BP installs insertion tube, begins siphoning oil from leaking pipe
Monday, May 17, 2010
In the first progress in containing the oil gushing from a blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers on Sunday inserted a tube into a leaking pipe and began siphoning some of the oil to a drilling rig at the surface.
The deep-sea plumbing did not do anything to close the well, and a substantial amount of oil continues to leak at the bottom of the gulf, but the day's efforts were a rare bulletin of good news about 3 1/2 weeks into the crisis.
On Sunday, a four-inch-wide 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 Kent Wells, senior vice president for exploration and production at BP.
But the race against time continued. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned over the weekend that plumes of oil already spilled and suspended beneath the water surface might, as soon as Tuesday night, start to get picked up by the powerful "loop current." The current could carry the oil to the Florida Keys and beyond, scientists fear.
Moreover, BP said that to completely stop the oil from flowing into the gulf, it would have to plug the damaged well at the top. The company said it will try to do this in the next 10 days or wait weeks for a relief well to be complete.
Wells called the insertion tube, which functions like a straw, a "positive step forward." 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.
But he said it would not be clear for another day or two how much of the oil can be captured. At least some oil will continue to leak into the water, adding to a slick that stretches more than 80 miles wide and more than 140 miles long.
"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 that "this is a gradual, carefully calibrated process aimed at steadily reducing the leak rather than a magic bullet."
BP's efforts to stop the flow of oil into the gulf come as the 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 farther away.
A feeling of imminent calamity continues to pervade Louisiana's coastal towns, where tar balls have been washing up intermittently on beaches and watermen are dreading what they think is the inevitable arrival of the huge oil slick and its penetration into marshes rich in fish, shrimp and crabs.
In Grand Isle, just west of, and tucked underneath, the lengthy claw of the Mississippi River delta, shrimper Harry "Chu Chu" Cheramie, 59, said fishermen are encountering oil not far to the west in Timbalier Bay.