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BP Makes Headway in Capturing Leaking Oil

May 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The oil company BP reported progress today in its struggle to control the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists voiced new worries that all the oil — about all the oil that’s already gushed from the ocean floor.

The word from BP was only slightly optimistic. A mile-long tube, the oil company said, is now managing to siphon roughly one-fifth of the escaping oil, then piping it to a tanker ship. The company says about 200,000 gallons of oil are leaking each day. But other estimates peg it at as much as 10 times that rate.

ROBERT DUDLEY, executive vice president, BP: What we’re doing is slowly doing something called opening up the choke at the top of the well to slowly increase the flow rates. We want to draw down the pressures at the bottom without bringing in the seawater, because that creates something like hydrates, so we are doing this slowly. And, over the next day or so, we should have a better idea of the flow rates in the well.

GWEN IFILL: On Sunday, robot submersibles began siphoning oil by inserting the tube into the broken pipeline. It took three tries. It was the first small success, after a series of other stopgap measures failed.

The company also began drilling a second relief well Sunday. As efforts to stop the leak continued, researchers working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported finding gigantic subsurface plumes of what could be crude oil.

VERNON ASPER, professor of marine science, University of Southern Mississippi: It’s not only the size of Manhattan in area, but it’s also several hundred meters depth.

GWEN IFILL: But NOAA officials said it is too soon to determine how far the oil has spread.

CHARLIE HENRY, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: That information has not been analyzed. None of the quantitative analysis has been done on that. We don’t even know what for sure is in those samples.

GWEN IFILL: Marine scientists also said computer models suggest the oil has drifted into the Gulf’s loop current. That could take it toward the Florida Keys and its fragile coral reefs.

Amid the questions about potential damage, the issue of culpability for the spill remained front-and-center. BP has blamed the well blowout on Transocean, which operated the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon that exploded and sank last month.

But last night on “60 Minutes,” one of the last men off the platform said BP had pushed hard and ignored safety issues to get the well running, especially because BP had lost time and money on an earlier unproductive drilling project.

MIKE WILLIAMS, engineer, Deepwater Horizon: You always kind of knew that in the back of your mind when they start throwing these big numbers around that there was going to be a push coming, you know, a push to — to pick up production and pick up the pace.

REPORTER: There was pressure on the crew after this happened?

MIKE WILLIAMS: There’s always pressure, but, yes, the pressure was increased.

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, BP America’s chief executive, Lamar McKay, was back on Capitol Hill.

Maine Republican Susan Collins asked about BP’s planning for disasters.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: That it seems that no one had really planned for this particular scenario. Is that accurate?

LAMAR MCKAY, president and chairman, BP America, Inc.: Unfortunately, we’re as frustrated as anyone. It’s taken time. But, believe me, the — the risk analysis around every single intervention is extremely important. And we’re being diligent about that. So, it’s transparent as well. So, everyone is seeing exactly what we are doing. So, I would say we are not scrambling around. No, I cannot say there was a plan to hit all these different intervention methods.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier, Arizona Republican John McCain also asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the progress fighting the spill.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Where is your level of optimism?

JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. homeland security secretary: I’m just taking it day-by-day. And I think that’s what we need to do. I think we need to just say, look, we are in the middle of this crisis. We’re not at the beginning. We’re at — we have been at it a month, almost. But we’re not near the end as well.

GWEN IFILL: Meanwhile, an environmental group asked the federal judge to shut down another BP oil rig in the Gulf, the Atlantis. That platform has had safety and engineering problems similar to the Deepwater Horizon.

And, in other developments today, the top Interior Department official in charge of oil and gas drill leasing announced he will step down at the end of the month. An administration official said the White House will form a presidential commission to look into the disaster.