BP Reports Modest Success In Slowing Oil Gusher
BP officials said Monday they've starting capturing some of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico -- marking the first time in more than three weeks that any of the company's strategies have worked to slow the flow.
BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Monday that a mile-long tube was funneling a little more than 42,000 gallons of crude a day from the blown-out well into a tanker ship.
That would be about a fifth of the 210,000 gallons the company and the U.S. Coast Guard have estimated are gushing out each day, though scientists who have studied video of the leak say it could be much bigger and even BP acknowledges there's no way to know for sure how much oil there is.
Speaking to reporters, Suttles said he was encouraged with the success of the riser insertion tool, but he stressed that wouldn't put an end to the leakage.
"This doesn't stop the flow," Suttles said. "It just attempts to capture it so that it doesn't come onto the sea."
Suttles said the company will never again try to produce oil from the well, but he didn't rule out drilling elsewhere in the reservoir.
BP also announced it's providing financial grants to the states along the Gulf of Mexico to help them promote tourism in the wake of the oil spill. Florida will get $25 million, while Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana will get $15 million each.
In the nearly a month since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers, BP has made several failed attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that got clogged with icy crystals.
Meanwhile, scientists from several universities and research centers have found several massive plumes of oil in the Gulf, as well as dozens of smaller plumes. Some of them are miles long and hundreds of feet deep; some lurk thousands of feet from the surface of the water. The oil is depleting the oxygen in the water that marine life needs to survive.
Tar balls have been sporadically washing up on beaches in several states, including Mississippi, where at least 60 have been found.
The U.S. Coast Guard reported that 20 tar balls were found off Key West on Monday, but said a lab analysis would have to determine their origin. The Florida Park Service during a shoreline survey found balls that were about 3 to 8 inches in diameter.
Engineers finally got the contraption to siphon the oil working Sunday after several setbacks. BP engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea.
Crews will slowly increase how much the tube is collecting over the next few days. They need to move slowly because they don't want too much frigid seawater entering the pipe, which could combine with gases to form the same icelike crystals that doomed the previous containment effort.
As engineers worked to get a better handle on the spill, a researcher told The Associated Press that computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat is being sent later this week to collect samples and learn more.
"This can't be passed off as 'it's not going to be a problem,' " said William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science. "This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys."
Hogarth said a computer model shows oil has already entered the loop current, while a second shows the oil is 3 miles from it -- still dangerously close. The models are based on weather, ocean current and spill data from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.
Hogarth said it's still too early to know what specific amounts of oil will make it to Florida, or what damage it might do to the sensitive Keys or beaches on Florida's Atlantic coast. He said claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after traveling over hundreds of miles from the spill site were not mollifying.
BP had previously said the tube, if successful, was expected to collect most of the oil gushing from the well. Officials still hope to collect most of it when the tube is working at full capacity.
Once it reaches the tanker, the oil is being separated from the natural gas and seawater. The natural gas is being burned off, while the crude is being sent to oil terminals.
Two setbacks over the weekend illustrate how delicate the effort is. Early Sunday, hours before a steady connection was made, engineers were able to suck a small amount of oil to the tanker, but the tube was dislodged. The previous day, equipment used to insert the tube into the gushing pipe at the ocean floor had to be hauled to the surface for readjustment.
The first chance to choke off the flow for good should come in about a week. Engineers plan to shoot heavy mud into the crippled blowout preventer on top of the well, then permanently entomb the leak in concrete. If that doesn't work, crews also can shoot golf balls and knotted rope into the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it, Wells said.
The final choice to end the leak is a relief well, but that is more than two months from completion.
Top officials in President Obama's administration cautioned that the tube "is not a solution."
"We will not rest until BP permanently seals the wellhead, the spill is cleaned up, and the communities and natural resources of the Gulf Coast are restored and made whole," Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a joint statement.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren and Jamie Tarabay contributed to this report, which also includes material from The Associated Press
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