Oil Spill: The Gathering Storm

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With a tropical storm looking more and more likely to hit the site of BP’s blown well in the Gulf of Mexico, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen made a difficult decision on Thursday night. In the end, however, the evacuation order was given. The rigs and ships involved with the relief well and the containment operations began moving away from the site, seeking shelter from a Tropical Storm Bonnie, which is expected to hit the area some time this weekend. Here’s part of Allen’s statement from Thursday evening:

Due to the risk that Tropical Storm Bonnie poses to the safety of the nearly 2,000 people responding to the BP oil spill at the well site, many of the vessels and rigs will be preparing to move out of harm’s way beginning tonight. This includes the rig drilling the relief well that will ultimately kill the well, as well as other vessels needed for containment. Some of the vessels may be able to remain on site, but we will err on the side of safety.

Based on Allen’s previous statements, once those ships begin evacuating they may not be back for as much as 10 to 14 days. That could have been a disaster—nearly two weeks in which the oil was flowing into the Gulf of Mexico with no containment whatsoever. But today—before he gave the evacuation order—Allen announced that he would allow the well to remain capped even if the control ships observing the operation needed to evacuate because of the weather. That’s key—since BP capped the well and closed the flow of oil a week ago, there’s been doubt about just how controlled that seal is. Government scientists have been keeping a close eye on the well to ensure that the cap wasn’t damaging the integrity of the wellbore—the assumption was that a storm, which would make it impossible to keep constant surveillance on the wellhead, would require Allen to open the cap and restart the flow of oil. “Based on the recommendation of Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, and the science team we have determined that if we have to evacuate the site we are prepared to leave the well capped,” Allen said in a briefing Thursday afternoon.

That means that as long as the well cap works, no additional oil will flow into the Gulf while the ships involved in the containment process are moved into a safe harbor. Work on the relief well—designed as the final solution to the spill—will be affected, and will likely be set back as long as two weeks. “We had expected to intersect the well by the end of July,” BP senior vice president Kent Wells said in a briefing on Thursday. “But with the weather, it may be more like the middle of August.”

Still, as long as the well remained capped, a delayed relief well won’t make a difference for the total cleanup effort. And once the weather clears, Allen as effectively given the go-ahead for the static kill, which would involve pumping mud and concrete into the well directly through the cap at the seafloor.  But the weather will impact the cleanup efforts closer to the shore. During the last tropical storm, which missed the well site but did hit northern Mexico, the sea levels rose enough to make skimming and other forms of oil cleanup impossible. That will certainly be true this time, and a hard storm could even push oil from the shoreline further into the wetlands of Louisiana, spreading the damage that has been limited to the coast so far. The good news is that with the well now capped for a full week, responders are reporting far less oil in the water, which means less risk to the wetlands. The bad news is the oil is still out there—and we don’t really know how it would react to a true tropical storm. We’ll find out soon enough.