Partial, temporary, fragile containment

PARTIAL, TEMPORARY, FRAGILE CONTAINMENT…. On Friday, to the relief of many, a metal containment cap was placed over the gushing wellhead in the Gulf, funneling some oil and gas to a ship on the surface. It was clear even before the attempts that the mechanism would only capture some, not all, of the oil.

So, what kind of progress are we talking about here? We’re getting a better sense of the details this morning.

Efforts to contain the flood of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico showed signs of progress as a cap placed atop BP’s blown-out well managed to capture 6,000 barrels of oil in its first 24 hours, officials announced Saturday.

No one knows exactly how much is still spewing from the well, although estimates by a government task force before the well was capped ranged between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil daily.

More oil can be captured by the containment cap, but engineers are still reluctant to close four open valves — the valves made it possible to center and seal the mechanism, and closing them could increase the pressure and blow it off. When might these vents be closed? BP said it didn’t have an estimate, but officials hope to make “adjustments” over the next “few days.”

One other possible hindrance is that the ship collecting the oil at the surface can only collect 15,000 barrels, though I don’t see why another ship couldn’t be brought in to collect excess when the first runs full.

In the meantime, the Washington Post had a good, albeit depressing, front-page piece today on just how long we’ll likely be dealing with the ecological consequences of the disaster.

Ecosystems can survive and eventually recover from very large oil spills, even ones that are Ixtoc-sized. In most spills, the volatile compounds evaporate. The sun breaks down others. Some compounds are dissolved in water. Microbes consume the simpler, “straight chain” hydrocarbons — and the warmer it is, the more they eat. The gulf spill has climate in its favor. Scientists agree: Horrible as the spill may be, it’s not going to turn the Gulf of Mexico into another Dead Sea.

But neither is this ecological crisis going to be over anytime soon. The spill will have ripple effects far into the future, scientists warn.

“This spill will be lasting for years if not decades,” said Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation.

In the meantime, President Obama devoted yesterday’s weekly White House address to the disaster, with remarks recorded in Louisiana. The president spoke at length about the families devastated by the spill: “These folks work hard. They meet their responsibilities. But now because of a manmade catastrophe — one that’s not their fault and that’s beyond their control — their lives have been thrown into turmoil. It’s brutally unfair. It’s wrong. And what I told these men and women — and what I have said since the beginning of this disaster — is that I’m going to stand with the people of the Gulf Coast until they are made whole.”

Update: New estimates suggest the cap is now collecting 10,000 barrels a day, which is further evidence of progress, at least for now.