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BP Official: Leaking Gulf Oil Well to Be Shut ‘Hopefully Within a Week’

May 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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In a newsmaker interview, Jeffrey Brown talks to BP Managing Director Robert Dudley about the gulf oil leak, as lawmakers point blame at the company, nearly a month after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re joined now from Houston by Bob Dudley of BP. He oversees the company’s activities in the Americas and Asia.

Mr. Dudley, thanks for joining us.

This figure, first, of 3,000 barrels a day now being recovered through the tube, how sure are you of this? Is there still guesswork here, or do you really know?

ROBERT DUDLEY, executive vice president, BP: Good evening, Jeff. We have been producing into the ships now for more than 24 hours, with the tube into the pipe. We’re slowly opening the choke at the top of the well, which opens the restriction, so that we can optimize the amount of gas and oil coming out of the well.

We want to make sure we don’t bring in seawater, because it creates the problem of hydrates in there. We have still got some time to go. It’s a very easily measured rate. We have got a high amount of gas coming out, 3,000 barrels a day and 13 million cubic feet of gas with the well that puts it into a category of a well that has a gas-oil ratio of 5,000, a very, very big number.

And that’s what you see at the plume at the bottom, is a lot of gas. We figure more than half of the plume itself is gas, along with the oil.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what — what seems to be hard to measure is this continuing division over how much oil has leaked into the Gulf. We have heard from a number of scientists who say that your numbers are off by magnitudes. You have heard those numbers.

What — what’s the response?

ROBERT DUDLEY: Well, this crude, as you look at it at the end of the pipe, it is not unlike you take a can of soda and you shake it up and you pop the top.

And what happens is, there’s a vast expansion of gas along with the crude oil. It’s very hard to measure. It’s very hard to estimate it from looking at the plume and measuring it. So, the estimate is a U.S. government estimate based on the — what we have seen at the surface in terms of measuring the slick and the — and the — its expansion rate over the days.

What we have done is gone in as a first step, contained a considerable amount of that oil. And the next step then is to move in to shut the well off, hopefully within a week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, all of these steps…

ROBERT DUDLEY: And — and — and, Jeff, let me just…

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

ROBERT DUDLEY: Those figures of 70,000 barrels a day, 100,000 barrels a day, I have seen those. I think they’re very alarming figures. They’re not based on science, and anything like what we’re seeing at the surface or what we estimate at the seabed.

And I think it’s slightly alarming to hear those figures.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well…

ROBERT DUDLEY: I don’t think that’s good for the tourism in Florida and Alabama and Mississippi, where it’s unlikely that the oil will affect at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I do want to ask you about the steps you’re taking, because there is a sense — and we heard it again in the hearing today — of sort of making things up as you go, trying a whole bunch of things.

Were you simply not prepared for a catastrophe that could and now has happened?

ROBERT DUDLEY: Well, Jeff, there’s two — two pieces of this. The spill response, the Coast Guard and BP immediately, within hours after the accident, began the spill response, which has been a massive spill response across the Gulf Coast.

We have 20,000 people working on that, all the way across the coast, with booms, dispersants, planes, ships. That’s — that’s one element of an environmental issue. The — the one thing that has happened here, we have had an industrial accident, which needs to be separated from a failure of a piece of equipment at the seabed.

There have been — the blowout preventers are something that are used on oil and gas wells all over the world, every well. They just are designed not fail with multiple failsafe systems. That has failed. So, we have a crisis. What we have done, what you should do in every crisis, is bring together the best engineering and scientific talent and experience from around the world, lay out the problem, and then systematically develop options.

And that’s what we have been doing. You need to do it with discipline. You need to do it without emotion, but with a sense of urgency. And, as we have developed more and more data from the subsea and the architecture of what has happened at the seabed, we have modified different responses to that step by step.

You have seen one to contain the spill, and then a nearby location is the wellhead. We have got a set of activities that we plan this week to try to kill the well by pumping heavy fluids into it. We have had to essentially X-ray all of the equipment down there to find out the condition of the various valves to be able to plan the next step.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, again, the worst…

ROBERT DUDLEY: I think…

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me, but the — the technology — the unexpected happened. And so the question that you keep hearing over and over again is, why wasn’t there a plan for a worst-case scenario, which appears to have happened?

ROBERT DUDLEY: Blowout preventers are designed not to fail. They have connections with the rig that can close them. When there’s a disconnection with the rig, they close, and they’re also designed to be able to manually go down with robots and intervene and close them.

Those three steps, for whatever reason, failed in this case. It’s unprecedented. We need to understand why and how that happened. And, in the fullness of the investigation, we will learn that. And those learnings have to be sent around the world. And it will alter drilling operations around the world.

There’s no question. And no one wants to find out more than we do why that’s happened and make sure it never, ever happens again anywhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I want to ask you about the dispersants question. We heard that raised in the hearing as well today.

The EPA approved it provisionally, but they also said that the long-term — this is a quote — “Long-term effects on aquatic life are unknown.”

Apparently, my understanding is that some — these dispersants are banned in Britain. So, how comfortable can you be about their use? How — how comfortable should the public be?

ROBERT DUDLEY: Well, there’s — there are two kinds of dispersants called Corexit, which have been used and have been the dispersant used by the Coast Guard for more than 20 years for spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is a standard dispersant that has — is readily stockpiled to be able to respond to a spill like this. It is essentially like soap. It’s like dish soap. And it takes the oil and turns them into small droplets, increases the surface area, and then the warm waters, the bacterial process begins to work to break it down and make it biodegradable.

The EPA has extensively tested these. They have — have said that this was one that we can use and approved it at the time. The long-term effects of dispersant are things I think we will be studying for a long time. But, right now, they seem to be doing an excellent job at the surface, and doing exactly what they were designed to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I want to ask you about the — the question of liability.

BP has said numerous times that you take responsibility for what happened, that the $75 million cap on damages, you won’t — you won’t — you won’t be bound by that. But I think there are still some questions about what you mean by paying legitimate claims, which is the way you have put it.

How — how limited, how expansive do you put on a term like that? What does it mean for damages to individuals, to business, to the environment, to tourism, and so on?

ROBERT DUDLEY: Well, Jeff, we have stepped up, like you said, from the very first day and said we will take responsibility for the spill response and legitimate claims.

Of course, we have to say that, but we have backed that up not by just words. We set up claim centers across the Gulf of Mexico in the communities that we have — I have been down there. I have seen them. We’re — anybody who has been disrupted there, their fishing businesses, they’re in there. They’re filling out applications. And we’re writing checks. We want to make sure people don’t miss boat payments, house payments, get food on the table.

It’s been a tremendous response. And we have been hiring local fishing boats to help us in the boom disbursement effort. This is what we mean by real action, rather than just words.

We have said we’re not going to hide behind a $75 million cap on the liabilities. To date, we have spent more than half-a-billion dollars on the spill response. We’re not going to ask for reimbursements for the American people for that effort.

And we’re going to keep at this. And shutting the well off, containing it at sea, and keeping it off the beaches as long as it takes, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bob Dudley of BP, thank you very much.

ROBERT DUDLEY: Thank you.