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BP moves a step closer to full containment of Gulf oil spill leak

Despite public missteps, BP made progress against the Gulf oil spill last week. It increased the amount of oil it is capturing, suggesting that plans to fully contain the leak might work.

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Unlike the Discoverer Enterprise, the Q4000 is not drawing oil from the containment cap installed early this month when BP sheared off the riser pipe. It is getting its oil from a valve on the side of the blowout preventer that had previously been used to pump in drilling mud during the failed "top kill" operation. Now that "choke line" valve is being used in the opposite way, siphoning oil to the Q4000.

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BP had been concerned that "junk" shot into the blowout preventer during the latter stages of the "top kill" might clog the choke line. The fact that it is working as hoped is a major boost for BP.

The Q4000, however, can’t store oil as the Enterprise does, so it is burning off all the oil it collects.

The next step

By the end of the month, another ship like the Q4000 – either the Toisa Pisces or the Helix Producer – is scheduled to arrive on site. It, too, will connect to a valve on the side of the blowout preventer – the "kill line" – and burn off the oil it collects. Its capacity is expected to be about 25,000 barrels a day.

That would bring BP’s daily capacity to 50,000 barrels daily.

A second large ship, the Discoverer Clear Leader, is expected to arrive on site in mid-July. That could increase capacity to 80,000 barrels daily, which would collect virtually all the oil, barring small leaks.

BP is, in many respects, scrambling to solve a containment problem of its own design. For weeks, BP refused all efforts to try to get a firmer grip on the flow rate of oil from the well, using an estimate of 5,000 barrels (420,000 gallons) a day. Now, the plans made on that estimate are inadequate, and BP is rushing to contain tens of thousands of barrels of oil still leaking into the Gulf daily.

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