New Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico Proves Situation More Dire than Originally Thought

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday as winds drove a massive oil spill toward the state’s coast and authorities scrambled to mitigate its environmental effects. The slick was some 16 miles off Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of last week’s oil rig explosion, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Authorities said the slick could begin affecting some coastal areas by Thursday evening, with the bulk expected Friday.

The slick covered some 600 square miles of water Thursday, state officials estimated. Ten wildlife refuges or management areas in Mississippi and Louisiana are in the oil’s likely path; the first likely to be affected is the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area at the tip of the Mississippi River.

“We’re sitting here half praying and half with our fingers, toes and everything else crossed,” said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association in Pointe-La-Hache, who lost five boats when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. (Reuters) Louisiana’s coast contains some 40% of the nation’s wetlands and spawning grounds for countries fish and birds.

“This brings home the issue that drilling despite all the advancements in technology is still a risky business,” said Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. (Reuters) AFP news agency reports that two Louisiana shrimpers have filed a lawsuit accusing the operators of the rig of negligence, and seeking at least $5 million in damages plus undetermined punitive damages. Under U.S. law, BP will be expected to meet all the costs of the spill clean-up operation.

The U.S. government has designated the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill as an “incident of national significance”. (BBC) Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that this move would allow resources to be ordered in from other areas of the U.S. Ms. Napolitano is to go to the area to oversee operations.The U.S. military has joined efforts to stem oil leaking from the well beneath where a rig exploded and sank last week, as fears rise about its scale.

At the White House, President Obama said the federal government will use “every single resource at our disposal” to help contain the oil spill. (CNN) Obama has called the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to discuss the spill, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. (CNN)

A command center already is open in Robert, Louisiana. A second will be opened in Mobile, Alabama, Napolitano said.

The government has reached out to the Department of Defence and asked whether it could provide expertise or assets in addition to the other tactics being deployed, Napolitano said.

Rear Admiral Mary Landry said 5,000 barrels a day – five times more than initially thought – were believed to be gushing into the sea off Louisiana. “This is not an exact science when you estimate the amount of oil,” Landry said, noting there are a lot of variables in calculating the rate of the spill. (CNN) “However, NOAA is telling me now that they prefer we use the 5,000 barrels a day as an estimate of what has actually leaked from this well and will continue to leak until BP secures the source.” (CNN)

Meanwhile, the government had ordered inspections of all deep-water oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico to see if anti-spill regulations are being followed.

If the coastguard estimate is correct, within two months the spill could match the 11 million gallons spilt from the Exxon Valdez tanker off Alaska in 1989.

BP is the owner of the well, while Transocean Ltd. owns and operates the rig. BP’s chief operating officer of exploration and production, Doug Suttles, welcomed the U.S. military’s offer to help. He said the company was using remote operative vehicles (ROVs) to try to find out how much oil was leaking into the sea. “I do not disagree with the admiral’s estimate that it could be 5,000 barrels a day – it’s clearly within the range of uncertainty,” said Mr. Suttles. (CNN) “This is very, very difficult to estimate,” Mr. Suttles told reporters. “Down below the surface we actually can’t meter this oil so we can just observe it… what our ROV pictures show to us on the sea floor hasn’t changed since we first saw the leak… but what we can say based on what we’re picking up on the surface it looks like it is more.” (BBC) Mr. Suttles estimated something between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels a day was leaking. “We’ll take help from anyone, I mean we welcome the offer from the Department of Defence, we’re working with the experts across the industry,” he said. “We’re not interested in where the idea comes from, what we’re interested in is how do we stop this flow and how do we stop it now?” (Reuters)

Meanwhile, a firefighting expert said the disaster may become the biggest oil spill ever. Mike Miller, head of Canadian oil well firefighting company Safety Boss, told the BBC World Service: “Probably the only thing comparable to this is the Kuwait fires [following the Gulf War in 1991]. The Exxon Valdez is going to pale in comparison to this as it goes on.” (BBC) Scientists say only a quarter of local marine wildlife survived the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The scale of the operation to contain the oil spill and protect both the U.S. coastline and wildlife is unprecedented, with the military and other government agencies collaborating with BP – which had hired the sunken rig – and industry leaders. Efforts to stem the flow are being complicated by the depth of the leak at the underwater well, which is about 5,000 ft (1,525 m) beneath the surface.

A coastguard crew has set fire to part of the oil slick in an attempt to save environmentally-fragile wetlands. A “controlled burn” of surface oil took place in the area about 30 miles (50 km) east of the Mississippi River delta.

Mr. Miller warned that burning off leaking oil was not a long-term solution. “The object of this game is to shut off the flow,” he said. (BBC)

The Coast Guard had hoped to conduct another controlled burn of the oil slick Thursday, but sea and wind conditions were preventing it, Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara told reporters. “As soon as there is an appropriate window, we will continue the controlled burn activity,” she said. (CNN)

The military could be enlisted to drop or spray more dispersants on the oil, although specifics are still being developed, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Erik Swanson said.

Top operations planners briefed Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday morning in anticipation of the possible request for assistance from the Coast Guard, said spokesman Capt. John Kirby. Mullen was told the weather is worsening, and the oil is set to reach the Louisiana coast Friday, Kirby said. Wind patterns out of the Southeast over the next few hours are increasing the likelihood the oil will come ashore. “This is just prudent military planning,” Kirby said. “This thing is not getting better.” (CNN)

Engineers are working on a dome-like device to cover oil rising to the surface and pump it to container vessels, but it may be weeks before this is in place. It is feared that work on sealing the leak well using robotic sumbersibles might take months. BP is also working on a “relief well” to intersect the original well, but this is experimental and could take two to three months to stop the flow.

Seventy vessels – oil skimmers, tugboats barges and special recovery boats that separate oil from water – as well as five airplanes, were working to spray dispersants and round up oil, BP said.

The cause of the explosion remains under investigation. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead after the worst oil rig disaster in almost a decade. Search efforts for the eleven have been halted due to the increase danger on the coastline.

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