Oil Spill: The Storm Passes For Now

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Bonnie is a bust. Saturday morning the National Hurricane Center discontinued tropical storm warnings for Bonnie as it crossed the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and made for landfall along the Gulf coast Saturday evening. It remains a tropical depression—one step down from a tropical storm—with winds around 30 mph and sea swells of around 3 to 5 ft. “Bonnie is barely holding on,” said Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in a Saturday briefing.

That’s welcome news for the oil spill response. Though BP had pulled out its relief well rigs on Friday, the ships are already headed back to the site, and the vessels controlling the underwater Remote Operating Vehicles (ROVs) were never forced to leave. That means there was no interruption of the 24/7 surveillance of the still-capped wellhead. (Go ahead, check the spillcams.) Though the fact that BP needed to pull out the relief well rigs and halt efforts to begin a static kill means that weather pushed the ultimate end of the spill back  7 to 9 days, it clearly could have been much worse. The fact that the oil is no longer flowing helps tremendously. “I think we benefited greatly by our decision to seize the weather window we had  and put the cap into place,” retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen said on Saturday.

The weather will still have an effect on the tens of millions of gallons of oil already in the water— but it might not be what people think. Lubchenco said that no significant storm surges are expected along the coastline—a real fear was that a major storm could push oil along the coastline inland, hitting land that hadn’t been touched by crude before. And the weather might help the cleanup further out to sea—the choppy waves and wind seems likely to break up oil slicks and tarballs, speeding natural disintegration and dispersal. “In some cases beaches may look cleaner because of the redistribution of the oil [from the weather],” Lubchenco said. “It’s better than it might have been.” Don’t expect to see any oil raining from the sky, either.

As the weather tails off, operations at the wellhead should get back to normal as early as Sunday. But while Bonnie was a dud, the very fact that BP had to delay many its relief well operations and pull out some ships for a storm that ended up not being a storm shows how vulnerable the well will remain until it is finally killed. There’s already another low-pressure system developing in the Caribbean, although it seems unlikely to become a very strong storm, and hurricane season—predicted to be worse than normal—is just beginning. “We’ll be playing a cat-and-mouse game for the rest of the hurricane season,” admitted Allen.

Bonnie also exposed the deep divisions and distrust that exist between Gulf residents and local officials versus BP and the federal response. The New York Times reported Saturday that parish officials in southern Louisiana bitterly fought plans to remove cleanup equipment and personnel in the event of a storm, fearing that it would leave their land exposed to surging oil. (The Coast Guard wanted to move the equipment to higher ground to preserve it from any flooding.) Kevin Davis, the president of St. Tammany Parish, threatened to arrest anyone who removed cleanup equipment from his territory, and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said—jokingly, probably—that he would shoot out the tires of any truck carrying boom away:

By late Thursday, compromises had been ironed out, and the equipment remained in the parishes. But the episode presaged a bigger test: what happens if an actual hurricane comes barreling through?

“You’ve got a real issue of trusting anybody’s word,” said Mr. Davis, who spent seven hours on Thursday in heated meetings with members of the response command.

As we’ve written before, BP has long since lost the trust of Gulf residents—for good reasons. The Gulf coast got lucky with Bonnie, but the next storm might not be so weak—and foundations of trust won’t hold, just like the levees during Katrina. If a real hurricane hits soon, it will be a real mess.