Video: Even bigger flow?

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    LESTER HOLT, anchor: Even as it moves forward with yet another plan to attack that leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico , BP is acknowledging that, even if successful, its latest gambit probably won't stop all of the oil. The effort to now affix a funnel-like device over the leak is expected to start early this weekend comes after the once promising top kill approach was declared a failure this weekend. Rarely have we reported a catastrophe that, after 41 days is still growing, but today a top Obama administration adviser told NBC News this may be the biggest environmental disaster this country has ever faced. And

    tonight there's something more to worry about: long-term health consequences. We have a team of correspondents around the country covering the implications and fallout from all of this and the shrinking options to cap the leak. NBC 's chief environmental affairs correspondent, Anne Thompson , starts us off in Venice , Louisiana . Anne , good evening.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Lester . The White House says BP 's next attempt to cut off the flow of oil could come tomorrow or Tuesday, but this try at a containment cap comes with a very big risk that the amount of oil going into the gulf could increase by 20 percent until the new device is installed. This is the center of despair for Louisiana , the still-leaking well 40 miles from its coast and a mile under the sea, a well many now fear will gush long into the summer. Today in Venice , BP 's CEO apologized.

    Mr. ANTHONY HAYWARD (BP CEO): We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused to their lives. And you know, we're -- there's no one that wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I'd like my life back.

    THOMPSON: There is growing concern that lives here will never be the same because the waters where so many earn a living could be ruined for years. The preliminary government estimate puts the flow of oil from BP 's well at 12 to 19,000 barrels a day, but one scientist who worked on that calculation says even that may be too low.

    Mr. IRA LEIFER (UC Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute): This reservoir, this well could flow 100,000 barrels per day or more, worst-case scenario, and it could do it for decades before it ran out. This is a scenario that would coat the coastline from the Keys to Cuba to Texas with an unimaginable amount of oil.

    THOMPSON: To keep that from happening, BP will now turn to a cap called the lower marine riser package. This week crews will use remote-operated vehicles to make a clean cut in the leaking pipe on top of the blowout preventer and then place the cap on top. If it works, the oil will be suctioned to the surface.

    Mr. HAYWARD: I think we feel confident that the production process will work, because we've demonstrated that with the riser insertion tool. What we are less sure of is how much of the volume will be captured by it.

    THOMPSON: This is the latest step in a real life science experiment to find a quick way to plug the leak.

    Mr. MICHIO KAKU (Physicist): Think of a fire hydrant that's out of control. Every time you try to cap it, every you try to smother it, stuff it, it simply blows back. That's the problem. That's the reason why they can't get a handle on this crisis.

    THOMPSON: And now another looming threat could further delay killing the

    well: hurricane season . It begins Tuesday.

    Mr. REESE HALTER (Conservation Biologist): Hurricanes have the probability and the potential to ramp this thing up to 11 on a scale of 10.

    THOMPSON: Now, people here say the difference between a hurricane and the oil spill is simply this. You can prepare for a hurricane and you can rebuild from a hurricane, but with this oil spill , all they can do is watch and wait.

    Lester: Anne , almost from the beginning of this crisis, we were told that a relief well would be the answer. I know they've been working on that. How close are they to having that functional?

    HOLT: Well, they're drilling two relief wells. The first one is actually ahead of schedule, Lester , and it's maybe the only thing that seems to be going right in this crisis. It is 10 days ahead of schedule, and if they can keep doing it consistently that means that relief well could be in place by the end of July. But then they have to hit the spot exactly and put a cement plug in there, so there is a high degree of difficulty with that technique as well.

    THOMPSON: Anne Thompson tonight in Venice ,

    HOLT:

msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 5/30/2010 8:19:01 PM ET 2010-05-31T00:19:01

Preparing the country for the possibility of even worse news, the Obama administration on Sunday warned that BP's next effort to contain the oil spewing from a damaged well in the Gulf could result in a temporary 20 percent increase in the flow.

BP's latest attempt to stem the leak involves cutting and removing a damaged pipe.  

White House energy czar Carol Browner said in a news release Sunday that government scientists believe the oil gusher could increase as much as 20 percent from the time the pipe is cut to when a containment valve is in place.

BP spokesman John Curry did not know how much time would pass between the procedures. The operation began Saturday and is expected to take four to seven days.

BP PLC Chief Operating Office Doug Suttles said Saturday that cutting off the damaged pipe wasn't expected to cause the flow to increase significantly.

Video: BP director

Earlier Sunday, BP's managing director said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that BP is optimistic its latest attempt could show results by the end of the week.

The new strategy is being tried after company abandoned its most ambitious bid yet for a temporary fix Saturday when BP said the “top kill” option — an attempt to overwhelm the broken well with heavy fluids and junk — had failed.

That strategy, which sought to stop the flow of oil, was always a long shot, Robert Dudley, the company’s managing director and head of disaster management, told NBC’s David Gregory on Sunday.

The probability is “much better” that the new approach, which seeks to contain the spread of the oil, will show good results this week, he said.

“I think the engineering on this is more simple than the top kill,” Dudley said.

BP hopes to use a diamond-cut saw to slice through a pipe leading out from the well and cap it with a funnel-like device using the same remotely guided undersea robots that have failed in other tries to stop the gusher, Dudley said.

“We have to do everything by robot” because the leak originates 5,000 feet below the surface, he said. “They have to go down and construct a small city.”

'Worst environmental disaster'
The spill has dumped 18 million to 40 million gallons into the Gulf, according to government estimates, exceeding even the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska. The leak began after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in April, killing 11 people.

Video: Health risks “This is without doubt the worst environmental disaster in our history,” Browner said on “Meet the Press.”

Experts have said a bend in the damaged riser likely was restricting the flow of oil somewhat, so slicing it off and installing a new containment valve is risky.

“If they can’t get that valve on, things will get much worse,” said Philip W. Johnson, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama.

Johnson said he thought BP could succeed with the valve, but he added: “It’s a scary proposition.”

News that the top kill fell short drew a sharply worded response Saturday from Obama, a day after he visited the Gulf Coast to see the damage firsthand.

“It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking, and we will not relent until this leak is contained, until the waters and shores are cleaned up and until the people unjustly victimized by this manmade disaster are made whole,” Obama said.

In the days after the spill, BP was unable to use robot submarines to close valves on the massive blowout preventer atop the damaged well. Then, two weeks later, ice-like crystals clogged a 100-ton box the company tried placing over the leak. Earlier this week, engineers removed a mile-long siphon tube after it sucked up only 900,000 gallons of oil from the gusher.

BP CEO disputes plumes reports
Also Sunday, BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward disputed claims by scientists that large undersea plumes have been set adrift by the Gulf oil spill and said the cleanup fight has narrowed to surface slicks rolling into Louisiana's coastal marshes.

Video: Holiday protests During a tour of a company staging area for cleanup workers, Hayward said BP's sampling showed "no evidence" that oil was suspended in large masses beneath the surface. He didn't elaborate on how the testing was done.

"The oil is on the surface," Hayward said. "Oil has a specific gravity that's about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity."

Scientists from several universities have reported plumes of what appears to be oil suspended in clouds stretching for miles and reaching hundreds of feet beneath the Gulf's surface.

Those findings — from the University of South Florida, the University of Georgia, Southern Mississippi University and other institutions — were based on initial observations of water samples taken in the Gulf over the last several weeks. They continue to be analyzed.

One researcher said Sunday that their findings are bolstered by the fact that scientists from different institutions have come to similar conclusions after doing separate testing.

"There's been enough evidence from enough different sources," said Marine scientist James Cowan of Louisiana State University, who reported finding a plume last week of oil about 50 miles from the spill site that reached to depths of at least 400 feet.

By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with NBC station WDSU of New Orleans. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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