Coast Guard Sees Cleanup of Spill Lasting Until the Fall
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS and JOHN M. BRODER
Copyright by The Associated Press
Published: June 6, 2010
HOUSTON — The Coast Guard commander in charge of the federal response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico warned on Sunday that even if the flow of crude was stopped by summer, it could take well into autumn — and maybe much longer— to deal with the slick spreading relentlessly across the gulf.
The assessment came as the sheer volume of oil gushing from the out-of-control well forced BP to temporarily halt its attempts to close all four vents on a capping device designed to capture the oil. Even with three vents still open, the cap was capturing so much oil — more than 10,000 barrels a day, an improvement over any previous containment attempt — that the company did not have adequate equipment at hand to process any more.
The well, like a raging undersea beast, has continued to stymie BP and government officials. One technician, amazed at the power of the oil gushing from its depths, called it “one hell of a well.”
Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard commander, said on “Face the Nation” on CBS that BP officials were working to secure the cap over the wellhead and to gradually increase the amount of oil recovered. But he said the only solution to the problem would be the successful completion of relief wells to finally stop the flow from the bottom of the 18,000-foot-deep well, a job that will not be completed until August at the earliest.
“The spill will not be contained until that happens,” Admiral Allen said. “But even after that, there will be oil out there for months to come. This will be well into the fall.”
He added: “This is a siege across the entire gulf. This spill is holding everybody hostage, not only economically but physically. And it has to be attacked on all fronts.”
Officials said Sunday that they were collecting more than 10,000 barrels a day from the well, but it was impossible to gauge what fraction of the total flow that represented.
A federal panel has estimated that 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day is flowing from the well. But those calculations were made before BP cut the riser pipe last week to accommodate the capping device, which administration officials have said could increase the flow rate by as much as 20 percent.
The area of gulf shoreline potentially affected by the spill has continued to grow, extending from central Louisiana to Port St. Joe in the middle of the Florida Panhandle, a 400-mile front in a widening sea, air and land war. Admiral Allen, who appeared on four television programs on Sunday morning to discuss the disaster, said he was fighting the oil and the elements with a flotilla of skimmers and boom-laying boats to try to keep the oil from making landfall.
“The problem we have, this is not a large, monolithic spill anymore,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It is an aggregation of thousands of smaller spills that could come ashore at any particular time based on wind and current.”
It was too early to judge the degree of success of BP’s latest maneuver to control the leak, although company officials continued to express optimism that the containment cap and a new device to be installed later in the week could eventually collect the majority of the oil.
After two days of trying to gradually close the four vents on the capping device, engineers on Sunday decided to keep some open when they realized that more oil was being captured than could be processed on a drill ship floating in the gulf above. In a statement late Sunday, the company said it “may leave some” of the valves open “to ensure system stability.”
Engineers had feared that the volume and velocity of oil escaping might create so much friction on the new pipe that it might force it entirely off the cap. All day Saturday they worked to shut two of the vents, and they spent the afternoon measuring the results, mindful that if they closed the vents too quickly, water could rush in and form the kind of icy hydrates that doomed a previous containment effort.
But while the cap remained snugly in place and there were no signs of significant hydrate formation, by nightfall Saturday the engineers suddenly were forced to deal with another problem: the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship can only handle 15,000 barrels a day, and the capping device was trapping almost that amount without the vents shut.
“We’re maxed out,” said the technician, who is working on the operation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. He said the capping device was capturing 10,000 to 15,000 barrels a day.
“There is no chance to close the vents when you are at maximum production,” he said. “You wish desperately you could capture it all, but it depends on the volume coming out of well. And you know how people are arguing about that.”
The problem may be only a temporary one. The limitations of the Discoverer Enterprise to handle oil are mainly due to the size and capacity of the machines it has on board to separate the oil, gas and water for storage. The ship has the capacity to store 139,000 barrels of oil, a quantity that may be reached in a matter of days. Shuttle barges carry oil from the ship to storage tanks on shore.
BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, in a British television interview broadcast Sunday, said another containment device would be deployed by next weekend. That device is a free-standing riser pipe that would siphon oil through the manifold that was built during a failed operation known as top kill. Another pipe will be also used to take oil from the well to a second container ship, the Q4000.
Taken together, BP executives say, they should be able to eventually contain a vast majority of the leaking oil. By early July, BP plans to replace the new containment cap with another device called an “overshot tool,” which is heavier and more tightly sealed. “That would capture even more oil” than the current cap, said Toby Odone, a BP spokesman.
The struggle to fully deploy the new containment device has raised renewed questions about just how much oil is spewing from the well. Official government and BP estimates began at 1,000 barrels a day, then increased to 5,000 barrels a day.
In recent days government scientists estimated the leak at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels, and Admiral Allen on Sunday put the upper range at 25,000 barrels. Some independent scientists say the number could be far higher, and they question why BP has not made an active effort to estimate the size of the leak.
Some questioned whether BP knew or even wanted to know how much oil was escaping.
“BP still does not appear to know precisely how much oil is actually escaping, which is discouraging,” Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a letter he wrote to BP on Sunday.
Government officials and BP executives say the containment efforts should help them come up with a more solid number.
Clifford Krauss reported from Houston, and John M. Broder from Washington. Henry Fountain contributed reporting from New York.