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Oil-suckers running at full tilt

The good news is that more than a million gallons of leaking oil are now being captured every day from the broken Gulf of Mexico well. The not-so-good news is that about 400,000 gallons of that is being burned off spectacularly by an “environmentally friendly” device that’s not all that environmentally friendly. And the even less good news is that as much as a million gallons are still leaking into the Gulf every day. That situation won’t change for a couple of weeks.

But down the road, the news should improve again. More oil-recovery ships are on the way to site, and the operation that's billed as the ultimate fix for the leaking well - a weeks-long effort to drill relief wells 13,000 feet beneath the sea floor - is ahead of schedule. The drill bit working on the deepest relief well is just 200 feet from the pipe, in fact, but the most difficult and time-consuming part of the operation is just ahead.

Here's how things stand in what's shaping up as history's biggest and most expensive single well-capping operation:

Oil-capture system near capacity
The BP oil company hit a new record on Thursday for most oil captured over a 24-hour period: About 16,020 barrels (672,840 gallons) of oil were brought up from the deep through a cap-and-riser system for processing aboard the Discoverer Enterprise, along with millions of cubic feet of natural gas that was flared off. That's close to the estimated daily capacity of 18,000 barrels. Another 9,270 barrels (389,340 gallons) of oil went through a different line to the Q4000 rig. That's also near the estimated capacity of 10,000 barrels daily. But the Q4000 doesn't have any processing facilities available, so all that oil has to be burned off.

Can burning oil be 'environmentally friendly'?
At current crude-oil prices, that burn rate suggests that $700,000 worth of petroleum is going up in smoke every day. Admittedly, it's not your usual "smoke." BP is using in a smokeless atomizing burner that is supposed to be more environmentally friendly than the usual equipment. However, the EverGreen Burner still carries an environmental cost. A report from Total E&P UK, prepared for North Sea drilling operations, says high-efficiency green burners are the "safest option" for burning oil, but they nevertheless produce irritating ozone, sulfur dioxide, greenhouse gases and nitrous oxides. Fallout from the burn can drift several miles (kilometers) away, according to the environmental study. The burning is said to pose a "moderate risk" to the environment - and that's upsetting to some activists. But in BP's view, at least, the risk is outweighed by the benefit of keeping that much more oil out of the gulf while reinforcements make their way to the site.

Oil spill

BP

This diagram shows how the oil-capture operation should look by the end of June. Click on image for full-size PDF graphics.

More ships are on the way
Sometime in the next 10 days, the Helix Producer processing ship is due to arrive on the scene - and start pumping up 20,000 to 25,000 barrels (840,000 to 1.05 million gallons) of oil daily from yet another line connected to the Gulf of Mexico well's broken blowout preventer. That will provide a huge boost to the oil-capture capacity. It's even conceivable that BP could discontinue the Q4000 oil-burning operation, if the output from the broken well is toward the low end of the current estimates (35,000 barrels leaking per day). By mid-July, still more processing ships (including the Toisa Pisces and the Clear Leader) will be collecting oil. The capture capacity would rise to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day, which would cover even the most dire estimates to date. By mid-July, the cap on the blowout preventer and the hookups to the well would be replaced with equipment designed to weather the hurricane season.

Oil spill

BP

This diagram shows how the oil-capture operation should look by mid-July. Click on image for full-size PDF graphics.

Relief wells close in on target
For weeks, two drilling rigs have been carving new holes through the seafloor, with the aim of intersecting with the 7-inch-wide pipe for the original, now-broken well at a depth of around 18,000 feet (which includes 5,000 feet of water plus 13,000 feet of drilling beneath the seafloor). As of Thursday, the well-drilling operations had reached depths of about 16,000 feet and 9,800 feet. More significantly, the deepest drill bit is only 200 horizontal feet away from the side of the well pipe, BP executive Kent Wells said today. But it will take weeks more to finesse those final feet. "We're actually going to go right beside it - that's what takes the time," he said.

BP spokesman Robert Wine told me that the team directing the drill is using magnetic sensors to get a fix on exactly where that pipe is in relation to the bit. Once the bit drills into the pipe, heavy mud and cement will be pumped down the relief well. It's expected that the gunk will flow up the pipe, harden and block the broken well completely. Wine said the drilling is proceeding ahead of schedule so far, but BP is still targeting August as the expected completion date. If the first relief well doesn't do the trick, then the second relief well would serve as a backup. But it could take several attempts to hit the pipe in the right place, as it did during a similar well-killing operation in Australia last August.

"It's a little bit like driving a car from the back seat," oil-industry observer Bob Cavnar told NBC News. "You can reach the steering wheel but it's a little hard to control."

Meanwhile, the disaster continues
As bad as it sounds to spray burning oil and gas into the air, burning the oil on the surface of the gulf raises more questions. "There are a couple of concerns," said marine biologist John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA's oceans campaign director. "One is the pollution. ... But also, where there is enough oil to make it worth skimming, along with the oil you find algae and other materials that tend to cause marine life to aggregate around it."

The oil and the fires pose a double threat to marine species such as sea turtles and dolphins. "Greenpeace has observed some of this from the air," Hocevar said. But the main concern is the cumulative impact of the oil that's been fouling the gulf and Louisiana's wetlands for weeks. As of Thursday, rescuers have collected 639 oiled birds and released 42 back in the wild. More than 100 sea turtles have been rescued alive, but only three have been released. Hundreds more dead birds and turtles have been collected. It's not clear, however, what role the oil spill played in their death.

When I spoke with Hocevar over the phone, he was on his way back from a tour of the barrier islands around Grand Isle, La. He estimated that there were 25,000 dead hermit crabs washed up on the shore. "It's awful to see," he said. "One of the reasons this is troubling is that this means the sand is no longer able to sustain life."

Bottom line? Let's hope that the reinforcements traveling in high gear, that the burning downshifts soon, and that the hurricane season stays stuck in low gear.

More on the disaster in the gulf:


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