Hurricane Alex Mucks Up the Oil Spill

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At least the worst-case scenario—for once—isn’t happening in the Gulf of Mexico. When forecasters warned last week that a tropical depression was forming in the Carribean, Coast Guard officials cautioned that that they would need to shut down containment operatons over the blown well for as much as two weeks if the storm came to close to the oil spill. That could have meant hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil bleeding into the Gulf that might otherwise have been contained—and with responders struggling to deal with the crude that’s already been spilled, a storm would have been crippling. Instead, the storm that became Hurricane Alex flowed to the west of the spill, making landfall in northern Mexico, which allowed containment to continue over the wellhead.

But the spill response wasn’t totally unaffected. The afteraffects of Alex have dumped inches of rain on the northern Gulf and led to high waves and wind, strong enough that the Coast Guard has been forced to pause all oil skimming and burning operations on the seas for the past couple of days. At a briefing with reporters on Friday, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft warned that the winds and waves would displace some of the absorbent boom that has been used to protect the shoreline of southeastern Louisiana, exposing wetlands to more oil. More than 50% of the flights over the spill have been cancelled because of the weather, making it tough for the Coast Guard to keep a close track of where the oil is going. “It’s going to be a long and ardurous cleanup process in the days to come,” said Zukunft.

There are bigger worries, though. Over the weekend the forecasters expect the winds to shift the footprint of the oil west along the shoreline, where it will eventually hit the Chandeleur Islands east of the Mississippi delta. Though island and the marshes around them are home to sensitive species, including shorebirds, and a serious oil hit—especially if boom has been ruined by the storm—could have long-lasting effects. “In the next 24 hours we are going to launch every available resources,” said Zukunft. “It’s going to be a long weekend down here in terms of the oil spill response.”

The threat to the wetlands only underscores just how vital it is for BP to finally stop the flow of oil coming from the well. But Alex has slowed that operation down as well. Right now BP has the Discovery Enterprise drillship, which is taking up oil from the containment cap over the well, and the Q4000 drilling platform, which is burning off captured oil and gas. Together they can deal with around 25,000 barrels a day—out of the 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day spurting out of the well, according to the latest government estimate. BP had planned to add an additional containment vessel—the wonderfully named Helix Producer—by this week, which would have been able to process an additional 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day, enough to potentially contain just about all the oil flowing out of the well. But the storm pushed that plan back until July 7 at the earliest—meaning it led to the loss of 125,000 barrels of oil that might have otherwise been captured. “That’s the greatest oppourtunity lost so far because of the weather,” Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen told reporters on Friday.

Still, there could be a savior on the horizon—a 1,100 ft. long, 10 story tall supertanker savior. The massive Taiwanese ship—which is actually called “A Whale”—lays claim to be the best oil skimmer in the world, a crude-eating monster that can collect as much as 500,000 barrels of oil-and-water mix a year. The supertanker, converted to operate into a giant oil skimmer, will be tested on Saturday to see whether it can work in the Gulf. Oily water enters the ship through 12 horizontal slits on the port and starboard sides of the vessel, where it is decanted to separate the oil and water, with the water returned to the sea. It sounds great, but no one is quite sure whether it will work, and no ship of this size has ever been used as a skimmer. “We’re anxious to find out how effective it will be,” said Allen at a White House briefing on Thursday. “But it’s a very large ship that’s been converted to be able to recover oil, and we’ll see how that goes.”

If A Whale—seriously, that’s the name and it is very awkward to write—actually works, it might finally be the silver bullet the people of the Gulf have been waiting for. But critics have their doubts—one Coast Guard officer told MSNBC that the Gulf spill was simply too dispersed to be picked up by one ship:

“I don’t think the concept is that bad, but I don’t see how in this situation it’s going to be a significant player,” said Dennis Bryant, a former Coast Guard officer who worked on implementing regulations required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 before retiring and starting a maritime consulting business in Gainesville, Fla.

“In a case like the Exxon Valdez spill, where you had a lot of oil on the surface in a confined area, a vessel like this could have gone in and sucked up a whole lot,” he said. “But in the Gulf, where the oil is pretty well dispersed over a vast area, I don’t see how it’s going to make a large dent.”

Oh well. Given that the ship’s owner, Nobu Su, tends to be referred to in the media as a “mysterious Taiwanese billionaire,” this whole situation sounds like something from an early 1970s Bond film. Actually, sometimes the Gulf oil spill seems like something out of the Roger Moore-era, down to the villain with an English accent—BP’s Tony Hayward. More than 70 days out, though, we’re still lacking a hero.