From: NPR topics: Environment
Published April 30, 2010 08:54 AM

Why It's So Tough To Stop The Gulf Oil Leak

More than a week after an explosion destroyed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, thousands of gallons of oil continue to flow into the Gulf. The blast killed eleven workers, and created one of the largest oil spills in U.S. waters. As investigators search for the cause of the explosion, crews work around the clock to stop the flow of oil and contain the slick. Some of the oil may be set on fire to prevent a larger catastrophe and damage to the U.S. coastline.

David Biello, associate editor of energy and environment at Scientific American, explains the origins of the of the oil leak, why it's so difficult to stop, and the tools used to clean it up.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

Last week's oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico took the lives of 11 workers and spawned one of the largest oil spills in U.S. waters. As much as 200,000 gallons a day may be gushing through a ruptured wellhead. And today, we learned it could take as long as 90 days to fix it.

With the leading edge of the oil slick expected to hit the Mississippi Delta area sometime tomorrow, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency. At the White House, President Obama said today he will utilize every single available resource at our disposal, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano promised an all-out response.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): Last night, BP alerted us to additional oil leaking from their deep underwater well. They are working with our support to estimate the size of this breach. As has just been mentioned, the president has urged, out of an abundance of caution and mindful of new and evolving information, that we must position resources to continue to confront this spill.

That being said, we have been anticipating and planning, and today, I will be designating that this is a spill of national significance.

CONAN: Crews continue to work around the clock to stop the flow of oil and contain the slick, but how did this happen in the first place? Aren't there safety valves to close the pipes if there's a break? And why is it so hard to plug this leak?

If you have questions on the nuts and bolts of the oil spill, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Biello joins us now from Scientific American in New York City, where he is associate editor of energy and environment. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. DAVID BIELLO (Associate Editor, Environment and Energy, Scientific American): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what do we know about the spill today we did not know yesterday?

Mr. BIELLO: Well, we know it's leaking five times as much oil as you mentioned in your opener there. It's up to about 200,000 gallons a day. To put that into perspective, the Exxon Valdez was, in total, about 10 million gallons. So it'd take a couple of months of leaking at this rate to catch up to that disaster.

And the last kind of deepwater oil rig spill like this happened back in 1979, 1980 off the coast of Mexico. And before they were able to cap that one - and it took almost a year to do so - it spilled 140 million gallons.

CONAN: Wow. And they're saying maybe three months more for this?

Mr. BIELLO: Yeah. All the let's say permanent solutions take a lot of time to do. And those permanent solutions range from drilling a new well to kind of intersect the existing well and get the oil flowing in a different direction rather than spilling directly into the Gulf, to putting a dome or a cap over the wellhead to, you know, block off the oil. 

To read the full interview: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126390880&ft=1&f=1025

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