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Success of BP’s Oil Well Cap Remains Uncertain

June 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After BP installed a cap on the head of the leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well, Ray Suarez talks to Greg McCormack of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas about whether this week's "cut and cap" attempt will stop the leak.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the latest efforts to contain the oil leak, we turn to Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, Austin.

For the record, the Service partners with the oil and gas industry.

He joins us from Houston.

Mr. McCormack, let’s take a look at what’s going on right now as we’re speaking to each other below the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The cap, as the company has indicated, has been successfully put in place, yet very little of the oil is being recovered. Why is that?

GREG MCCORMACK, Petroleum Extension Service director, University of Texas at Austin: Well, we — we have to measure success incrementally. There’s no silver-bullet solution to this.

They have to be very careful that two things don’t occur, that the flow of oil & gas does not lift the cap off the riser, and therefore make everything worse. And the second thing is, they always have to be cautious of getting water in there and hydrates forming and plugging that pipe that leads the oil and gas to the surface. That, again, would negate the effectiveness of this cap.

But I think, over time, they will increase the amount of oil and gas flowing to the surface from the 5 percent to 10 percent capture rate that they have now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, BP has said that you will see more of the oil being captured over time as they close the valves.

But now we’re about 18 hours into this operation since the cap was put in place. Why haven’t the valves been closed yet? What is it that — that makes this such a slow operation?

GREG MCCORMACK: They have to be very, very cautious that they don’t undo all of the incremental successes they have had to date. They have to do a lot of measuring.

They have to wait for the flow to come to an even flow after they have made a change. If they keep on making changes without understanding the effect of those changes, they could negate everything that they have done to date.

RAY SUAREZ: The cap is attached to something that, for want of a better term, looks like a giant soda straw that goes all the way up to the surface.

Is it hard, once you have got that attached, to actually get the oil to go up that tube and make it recoverable by a ship on the surface?

GREG MCCORMACK: No. Actually, it’s very easy to make it go up there. Because there is gas that involved with the oil, you have what is known as gas lift, and it makes the oil a lot less dense, and it makes it want to float to the surface even quicker.

RAY SUAREZ: So, how do you explain the discovery of large amounts of oil that have not gone to the surface?

GREG MCCORMACK: Well, that — that is kind of interesting.

And, really, not being an environmental scientist, I am at a loss to be able to explain that to your listeners.

RAY SUAREZ: Do the earlier attempts to cap this flow, the things that they had done to this well up until now, actually make it harder to do what they are attempting today?

GREG MCCORMACK: No, actually, it makes it easier, because every solution that they tried before, they learned something from it. They learned about hydrates. They learned how to deal with them. The top kill gave them information about where the restriction was, so that they didn’t have as large a concern taking the riser off that they would magnify the problem by three or four times.

So, they learned something with all of those previous attempts.

RAY SUAREZ: Once you are fully operational with this cap — let’s say things start to look better over the next one or two days — are you recovering commercial-grade oil at that point? Can it be brought to a refinery and — and turned into petroleum products? Is there some use for this stuff once you keep it out of the Gulf?

GREG MCCORMACK: My guess, they will use this just for its heating value. It’s mixed with water, and, therefore, it’s very difficult to separate. You could separate it and put it through a refinery, but my guess is, they will burn it in a power plant somewhere and just use the heating value to either generate electricity or steam.

RAY SUAREZ: The president was down in the Gulf today, and he termed it way too early for optimism. What do you think? Are you encouraged by what you saw today, since the capping operation began?

GREG MCCORMACK: I am encouraged. I am encouraged by the fact that they were able to sever the riser, though not quite the way they wanted to, that they were able to get a cap over the riser stub, and that they were able to get oil and gas to the surface. I’m very encouraged by that.

We shouldn’t expect that this is going to be a complete solution. It’s only an incomplete solution.

RAY SUAREZ: And that expected capture rate of about 90 percent, do you think that’s achievable?

GREG MCCORMACK: I think anything over 50 percent, I think we should look as a success. And, don’t forget, they have another option here.

On the top kill, we were using the choke and kill lines to force mud down the wellbore. We can use those very same lines to take oil and gas out of the blowout preventers before it reaches the surface, and put them into another pipe to the surface. So, we can capture more oil and gas that way as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you worry about getting to the bottom of the bag of tricks, that, if this doesn’t work, that the better solutions have already all been tried, and now you have got even less of a chance of success? Is there a technology waiting behind this one if this doesn’t work?

GREG MCCORMACK: I am always worried when we have a problem of this magnitude that’s causing so much distress to everybody.

But I think what we — what the industry can do and what BP can do in this case is, if this cap doesn’t work, design another cap that works. We know where the oil is leaking from now. We can certainly be able to capture it. We will find innovative solutions to capturing that oil before it soils the Gulf Coast.

RAY SUAREZ: Greg McCormack, thanks again for joining us.