Robots tighten cap on oil leak

16:30, July 11, 2010      

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Undersea robots manipulated by engineers 1.6 kilometers above began work yesterday removing the containment cap over the gushing well head in the Gulf of Mexico to replace it with a tighter-fitting cap that could funnel the oil to tankers at the surface.

If all goes according to plan, the tandem of the tighter cap and the tankers could keep the oil from polluting the fragile Gulf as soon as tomorrow.

But it's only a temporary solution to the catastrophe unleashed by a drilling rig explosion nearly 12 weeks ago. It won't plug the well, the leak will get worse before it gets better -- and it remains uncertain that it will succeed. When the cap is removed, oil will flow mostly unabated into the water for about 48 hours -- long enough for as much as 19 million liters to gush out -- until the new cap is installed.

The well would still be leaking as much oil as before -- but all of it would be funneled to the surface and away from the sea. The hope for a permanent solution remains with two relief wells intended to plug it completely far beneath the sea floor.

Crews using remote-controlled submarines plan to take advantage of a window of good weather following weeks of delays caused by choppy seas.

The cap now in use was installed on June 4, but because it had to be fitted over a jagged cut in the well pipe, it allows some crude to escape. The new cap -- dubbed "Top Hat No. 10" -- follows 80 days of failures to plug the leak.

BP first tried a huge containment box also referred to as a top hat, but icelike crystals quickly clogged the contraption in the cold depths. The oil giant then tried to shoot heavy drilling mud into the hole to hold down the flow so it could insert a cement plug.

After the "top kill," engineers tried a "junk shot" -- using the undersea robots to try to stuff golf balls and other debris to plug the leak. That also failed.

Meanwhile, on Friday, BP worked to hook up another containment ship to a different part of the leaking well. The ship, which will be capable of sucking up more than 3.8 million liters a day when it is fully operating, should be working by today, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said.

The US says 5.7-9.5 million liters of oil a day are spewing from the well, and the existing cap is collecting about 3.8 million liters of that.



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