Up Close Look at Oil Siphoning Operation

BP is about to take a big step in trying get control of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP will test the new containment cap it installed on the well head to see if it can handle the pressure of the oil pushing into it. That test had been delayed Wednesday out of what the government called "an abundance of caution."

The concern was that putting more pressure on the already-damaged well bore could do more harm than good and could even create more leaks. But late Wednesday, BP got the green light for the test to begin. Meanwhile, the siphoning operation continues above the well and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric went out there today for a look.

CBS News headed out to the disaster site with the government's point man, Admiral Thad Allen, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. We landed on the Helix Producer. Unlike a rig it's not moored to anything on the ocean floor - it's a ship, and GPS keeps it in place. It's a dramatic sight: oil is pumped in through a riser, then after it's separated, the natural gas is burned off.

Katie Couric at the Oil Leak Site

Ever since the HP1, a floating production unit, arrived here on June 19, it's been ramping up its capacity to collect oil. Its target is to be able to collect some 30,000 barrels -- or 1.26 million gallons of oil -- every single day, and then pipe it into a tanker nearby.

The Helix Producer will get an assist from three other vessels. Ultimately four vessels will be charged with really siphoning up the total amount of oil that's coming up.

"We believe that will give us 60-80,000 barrels a day which is above our current flow rate estimate," Allen said.

"So that will at least stop it, right?" Couric asked.

"It will contain all the oil," said Allen.

"But then obviously the relief wells will actually stop it for good?"

"Stop it for good, exactly right."

This is really Plan B - ideally the latest device, the so-called "capping stack," a massive piece of equipment weighing 75 tons, will stop the flow completely. But testing was delayed because scientists were worried about putting too much pressure on the drill pipe and well bore below the sea floor.

After a day of intense review and debate, the test was green lighted late Wednesday. Engineers will first close-off the valves on the "capping stack" - which should trap the leak inside. With all three valves closed, they can measure the well's pressure.

A high pressure reading of 8000 pounds per square inch means the well is in good shape. But, a low reading means oil is still coming out somewhere below.

"We won't know until we actually close the system and start bringing the pressure up what that will tell us," Allen said.

A symbol of both man's engineering genius and corporate hubris, the industrial city on the water is a massive show of force, waiting for its next mission.

"I don't think there's ever been an aggregation of drilling vessels, production vessels, and vessels supporting remotely operated vehicles, probably at least in the history of the western hemisphere, maybe the world," Allen said. "I think we're really going to have to think about the systems that support offshore production and how we're going to respond to one of these in the future."

Capping the well and containing the spill are a temporary fix. The permanent solution will be when the relief wells are completed in mid-August, and the leak can be plugged with drilling mud and concrete.
  • Katie Couric

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