Of course, when we say “early,” it is important to remember that we’ve now passed Day 80 of the oil spill, and up to 150 million gallons of crude have already leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, if not more. But BP may be close to finally ending the leak. On Saturday, the company began a complex multi-day operation that involves removing the current Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) cap from above the wellhead, swapping in a newer and tighter cap, and connecting several new ships that will be able to capture much more of the oil flowing from the well. Right now, between the oil captured from the LMRP by the drillship Enterprise and the crude flared by the Q4000 platform, BP can prevent around 25,000 barrels of oil a day from escaping into the Gulf—out of an estimated leak rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. If everything goes according to plan—which admittedly would be a first—within a week BP might be able to capture 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day, which would theoretically stop the spill even before the relief wells have been completed. “Our intent is the ability to contain all the flow,” said Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president in charge of the effort, in a briefing for reporters on Saturday. (You can watch Wells explain the process step by step in a video briefing here.)
The plan isn’t without risk, however. As I write this on Saturday afternoon, BP’s underwater robots have managed to disconnect the LMRP cap—and as a result, thousands of barrels of oil that had been captured by the Enterprise are now flowing freely into the Gulf. (The Q4000, which is connected to the well via a different pipe, is still collecting 10,000 or so barrels a day.) If something goes wrong—and a lot has gone wrong for BP in its efforts to stop the well’s flow—we could easily end up worse off than when we began. That was why Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen sent a letter earlier this week to BP’s Bob Dudley—now heading up the oil spill response—to demand a full accounting of the risks and benefits of the new containment plan. After Dudley got back to him on July 9, Allen gave the go-ahead—in part to take advantage of good weather in the Gulf, which is expected to last through the week. “I validated this plan because the capacity for oil containment when these installations are complete will be far greater than the capabilities we have achieved using current systems,” Allen said in a statement on July 9.
Now that the LMRP cap is off, underwater robots are unbolting the flanges over the wellhead, to prepare the way for the new and tighter cap. (You should be able to get a pretty good look at the operation on this underwater camera feed, which shows robots actually disconnecting the flanges bolt by bolt. Robots, the unsung—and only—heroes of the spill.) Once that is completed, BP will lower a flange transition spool and then a massive 3 ram capping stack—a 30 ft. tall, 80 ton apparatus—that will be lowered over the bleeding well. If all goes right, the new cap should be able to make a hydraulic mechanical seal—much tighter than the LMRP cap, which was never able to capture all of the oil.(Henry Fountain, the New York Times‘s resident engineering reporter, has a more in-depth explanation.)
At the same time, BP is moving ahead with the construction of a free-standing riser, floating above the ocean floor, that will go from the well to a new collector ship, the Helix Producer. That vessel will be able to process 20,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil a day, while two other new ships—the Toisa Pisces and the Clear Leader—will be able to collect 30,000 to 40,000 barrels a day. Add that to the Enterprise, which will be reconnected to the new cap, and that should be enough containment capacity to get all the oil flowing into the Gulf—and then some. The new system will also be, as Wells has put it, more “hurricane-efficient,” because in the case of bad weather, BP should be able to disconnect and then reconnect its containment ships more easily than it can right now. (Under the current system, BP would have to largely stop containment for up to two weeks if a major storm were to near the spill site.) “This is about having excess capacity in case we have any issues with production,” said Wells.
For now, the rest of us have little more to do than wait—and wait online, if we want. It should be said that in this endeavor at least—if in so few others—BP is being remarkably transparent, with underwater camera feeds following the action and twice-daily technical briefings for the media. See, guys—it’s not that hard.