BP, U.S. govern­ment di­verge on next step at oil spill site

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By David A. Fahren­thold

The blown-out well at the bot­tom of the Gulf of Mex­ico re­mained shut Sun­day for the fourth day — seem­ingly, a rare stroke of good news af­ter a long stretch of bad luck, equip­ment fail­ures and gush­ing oil.

But BP and the fed­eral govern­ment sig­naled they had dif­fer­ent ideas about what to do next, with BP talk­ing about keep­ing its well shut per­ma­nently and the fed­eral govern­ment urg­ing cau­tion.

Early in the day, BP of­fi­cials said that a me­chan­i­cal “cap,” in­stalled Thurs­day to seal the well, ap­peared to be hold­ing up

hief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Doug Sut­tles said BP hoped to keep the well “shut in,” re­ly­ing on the cap un­til the oil com­pany could close the rup­tured well per­ma­nently with a re­lief well this month or next.

But Sun­day evening, the fed­eral govern­ment’s na­tional in­ci­dent com­man­der re­leased a let­ter he had writ­ten to BP, not­ing a “de­tected seep a dis­tance from the well and un­de­ter­mined anom­alies at the well head.”

A seep would be a se­ri­ous prob­lem if it in­di­cated oil or gas es­cap­ing from the capped well and bur­bling up through the seafloor.

Re­tired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen gave per­mis­sion to keep the well shut but said BP must keep him abreast of any po­ten­tial prob­lems at the well and pre­pare to re­lease oil if a se­ri­ous leak ap­pears.

“When seeps are de­tected, you are di­rected to mar­shal re­sources, quickly in­ves­ti­gate, and re­port find­ings to the govern­ment in no more than four hours,” Allen wrote.

Also Sun­day evening, a spokesman for BP, John Curry, de­clined to say whether Sut­tles’ as­sess­ment from ear­lier in the day was still ac­cu­rate.

“We’re not see­ing any prob­lems at this point, any is­sues Re­search as­sis­tant Becky Win­sted, left, pre­pares to treat a log­ger­head tur­tle re­cov­ered from the Gulf while vol­un­teer Re­becca Dun­ham and Tim Hof­fland, di­rec­tor of an­i­mal care, as­sist Sun­day at the In­sti­tute for Ma­rine Mam­mal Stud­ies in Gulf­port, Miss. with the shut-in,” Sut­tles had said about 8:30 a.m.

“We’re not go­ing to pro­vide a run­ning com­men­tary” of de­vel­op­ments at the well­head, Curry said. “If there’s a change, a re­lease will be is­sued.”

In the con­fu­sion, this much was clear: Even if the now-in­fa­mous Ma­condo well doesn’t leak an­other drop, the spill is likely to re­main an en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic prob­lem for some time. Out in the gulf, a re­cent re­con­nais­sance flight showed that the spill’s epi­cen­ter — the wa­ters around the leak­ing well — is no longer clogged with thick oil, a Coast Guard spokesman said. What re­mained was only a “sil­ver sheen,” he said, mean­ing a thin film of de­cayed oil.

But at least 2.3 mil­lion bar­rels (105 mil­lion gal­lons) have spilled al­ready, ac­cord­ing to an es­ti­mate from the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency.

And, fur­ther off­shore, sci­en­tists are strug­gling to un­der­stand how sub­merged “clouds” of oil are af­fect­ing the Gulf’s ecosys­tems. These might poi­son some small an­i­mals out­right, and they might trig­ger low-oxy­gen “dead zones” that could smother long-liv­ing corals in the deep.

Sci­en­tists said it could take sev­eral grow­ing sea­sons for them to as­cer­tain how the spill has af­fected vi­tal ma­rine an­i­mals such as shrimp, crab and oys­ters. And it could take far longer to un­der­stand what has hap­pened to crea­tures such as sperm whales, which live in lit­tle-stud­ied canyons of the deep Gulf.

The amount of the sub­merged oil and the spread of the crude make any pre­vi­ous oil spills un­re­li­able guides.

“There are no use­ful analo­gies for this one,” said Steven Mu­rawski, an of­fi­cial at the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fish­eries di­vi­sion.

The real end to the drama at the well­head could be a few weeks away. Sut­tles said the clos­est re­lief well was more than 17,000 feet be­low the sea floor: 100 feet ver­ti­cally and 4 feet lat­er­ally from the point it needs to reach.

That re­lief well could hit its tar­get by the end of this month, Sut­tles said, al­though the process of “killing” the rup­tured well might last un­til mid-Au­gust.

John Fitzhugh

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