BP's Leaky Fix: Can More Oil Be Recovered?

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Charlie Riedel / AP

A dead fish floats on oil at Bay Long, off the coast of Louisiana, on June 6, 2010

After seven weeks on the public relations griddle, the folks at BP are starting to get testy — and they arguably have a right to. Going from self-described corporate good guy to the only company in the world that could make Americans forget about Toyota, Goldman Sachs and the subprime mortgage brokers cannot be fun. Worse, the public's loathing of all things BP continues even as the company has some rare good news to report: With the Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) now in place over the stump of the riser pipe, BP has collected 11,100 bbl. of oil in the 24 hours from Sunday to Monday alone, and that rate of recovery is continuing.

But if BP was hoping to feel the love, it's not. Once again, the company's inconsistent technical skills — and its consistent gaffes and dissembling — are to blame.

The LMRP is a lot more complicated than merely a cap with a hose running up to a collection ship. The dome that covers the pipe is equipped with four valves — three of which are currently open and allowing oil to escape. BP is perfectly capable of closing the valves — and now that the technicians are reasonably comfortable that the force of the rising oil won't pop the LMRP off like a champagne cork, they could begin to do so. The problem is, once oil is no longer flowing out of the vents, seawater could seep in, and that might cause the formation of icy hydrates that could clog the pipe and render the entire apparatus useless. BP is pumping down warmed seawater and methanol — a sort of antifreeze — to help keep things flowing, but it can't yet say if those measures are sufficient.

That presents real problems. With the flow rate from the broken pipe estimated at up to 25,000 bbl. per day, that means that even if BP continues to collect 11,000 bbl. per day, it will still be spilling 14,000 bbl. — this from a company that until only recently was claiming that the entire well was leaking at just a 1,000 bbl. daily rate. But if you'd think the company would be rushing to get those valves closed, you'd be wrong.

"We'd like that. Oh, I'd guess so, yes," says company spokesman Robert Wine. "I'm not sure what difference it makes. Numerically, we're collecting a certain amount of oil [and] the valves aren't that important."

Even if BP were pouring all its efforts into that job alone, there are other constraints at work. Oil brought to the surface via the LMRP is collected by a drillship called the Discoverer Explorer. Before flowing into the ship's hold, the oil must be processed — with seawater separated from oil, and gas separated from both. The seawater is then dumped over the side, the oil is stored and the gas is burned away. "In the last 24 hours, we've flared 22 million cubic feet of gas," Wine says.

Fine as far as it goes. But the Discoverer Explorer can work only so fast and hold only so much. Its capacity is 128,000 bbl., or a little more than 11 days' worth at the current rate of pumping. Worse, it can't process more than 15,000 bbl. per day, meaning that even if the ship's capacity were unlimited and all the valves on the LMRP were closed, there would still be no place to put up to 40% of the oil gushing from the well.

Some of that daily overflow could start being sucked up by the end of the week. The flexible hoses BP used in its failed top kill attempt — in which drilling mud and junk were pumped into the blowout preventer — are still attached to the well and running up to a small drilling platform called the Q4000. During the top kill, the Q4000 pumped down about 30,000 bbl. of mud over the course of 72 hours. BP is now working to reverse the flow and use the hoses to pump oil up instead. That, according to Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen at a Monday-morning White House briefing, could add an additional 5,000 bbl. per day to the total cleanup capacity.

Further down the line — sometime in early July — BP hopes to increase capacity further by removing the LMRP and replacing it with a larger, more robust cap that could capture the entire flow. This would be attached to a new, semi-permanent, mile-long riser pipe that would not have to be connected to a drillship in order to stay upright, but rather to a buoyancy tank 3,000 ft. below the surface. In the event of a hurricane (storm season began June 1), this would allow the drillship to decouple and hightail it to safety. For as long as the storm raged, the oil would flow into the Gulf unchecked.

This too is a reasonably good plan — at least provided a hurricane doesn't make too much of a mess of things — but again, BP's math doesn't add up. A bigger riser cap collecting all the oil still does you no good if your processing ship can't handle the flow. Never fear, says BP, a new vessel with a larger processing capacity is on the way. For now, however, the company isn't saying when it will arrive, what its processing capacity will be or even where it is at the moment. "This isn't magic," Wine says.

To be fair, Allen doesn't seem all that certain of those facts either — but to be fair also, it's not his ship, it's BP's. Allen does say that some of the needed vessels are stationed as far away as the North Sea — and that they're not built for speed. He also stresses that for now, the government is focusing less on things it can't control than those it can — particularly getting better estimates of the actual leak rate. A reporter asked Allen if the government was assuming that task because it didn't trust BP, and Allen deferred mostly to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

"The amount of oil that leaks will determine the fine that BP incurs," Gibbs said. "So while our interests align on capping this well, we would never ask BP to tell us how much oil they think has leaked."

As Week 7 of the disaster gives way to Week 8, BP may not be showing much of a learning curve, but Washington surely is.