BP now Stemming 40% of Leak from the Source
Progress in stemming Gulf oil spill
From correspondents in New Orleans
May 19, 2010 2:56AM
BP has reported further progress in stemming a gushing Gulf of Mexico oil spill as concerns grew for Florida’s sensitive coral reefs and political fallout from the disaster spread.
The British energy giant, which has been struggling to contain the disaster, said overnight a tube inserted into a leaking oil pipe is now sucking up about 40 per cent of the crude, about twice as much as it did one day earlier.
The company said its “riser insertion tube tool” is estimated to be carrying about 2000 barrels a day of oil up to the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship on the surface via a mile-long pipe.
BP reckons about 5000 barrels is spewing each day from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig, although analysis from several independent experts has suggested the flow rate could be many times that.
Worries over the ecological impact of the huge oil spill are growing, with fears focused on the spread into the “Loop Current” that could carry the pollution to the Florida Keys or nearby areas.
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The US Coast Guard was analysing 20 tar stains found on a beach in Key West to determine if they were from a giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a spokeswoman said today.
If it is tracked back to the oil gushing from the ruptured offshore well off Louisiana, it would mean powerful currents are carrying it around the southern tip of the peninsula and its fragile coral reefs.
“About 20 tar balls, three to eight inches in diameter, were found on Monday at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, in Key West, on the beach of the park,” said Anna Dixon, a coast guard spokeswoman in the region.
Satellite images taken on Sunday by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory show the oil may have already entered the Gulf Loop Current, which could pull it through the Florida Keys and into South Florida, some scientists say.
“I think the threat to South Florida is real and we should get ready,” said Igor Kamenkovich, a scientist at the University of Miami. “It’s hard to predict but if it gets in the Loop Current, it can happen as quickly as seven to 10 days… If it does happen, it is bad news for us.”
There are also concerns that huge underwater plumes of crude could be starving the sea of oxygen.
A research vessel has located plumes reported to be up to 16 kilometres long, 4.8 kilometres wide and 92 metres thick that suggest a far greater impact on the marine environment than previously thought.
“BP is burying its head in the sand on these underwater threats,” said Democratic congressman Ed Markey.
An expert from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies said that deepwater spills posed greater risks due to these plumes.
“Normally, in a shallow spill, everything pretty much shoots up to the surface and the impacts are primarily to surface organisms like turtles, dolphins, whales and birds,” said Paul Montagna.
“What happens is we’re dealing with a different kind of situation than the past because under this really cold, high-pressure environment the oil is getting dispersed through the water column,” he said.
Meanwhile in Washington, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was set to face politicians at two separate hearings amid growing political unease about the calamity.
An administration official said President Barack Obama would establish an independent commission in the coming days, supplementing government inquiries into the major environmental disaster.
The spill appeared to claim its first political casualty, with the announced retirement of Chris Oynes, who oversaw offshore energy for the Minerals Management Service (MMS).
The federal agency has come in for scathing criticism over the enforcement of safety standards for offshore drilling.
Last week Mr Obama slammed MMS as being too “cozy” with the companies it regulates, and ordered “top to bottom” reform of the agency.
Response crews have used some 560,000 barrels of controversial chemical dispersants, spraying them onto surface oil and also directly into the leak in a bid to break up the oil.
The limited progress is unlikely to take the heat off BP. Congressional hearings have revealed multiple warning signs that were overlooked before the April 20 blast on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 people and touched off the catastrophe.
BP plans to conduct a “top kill” procedure to inject heavy drilling “mud” into the well and permanently seal it with cement in the next seven to 10 days.