Update: Gulf Oil Now in Powerful Loop Current, Headed for the Florida Keys

The first oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill has entered an ocean current that could take it to Florida and up the east coast of the US, scientists say. The European Space Agency said satellite images suggested oil could reach the coral reefs of the Florida Keys within six days.

“We have visible proof that at least oil from the surface… has reached the current,” said Dr. Bertrand Chapron. (BBC)

Yonggang Liu, a researcher at University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, told AP on Wednesday that if the oil is in the loop current, Cuba’s north coast – some 480 miles (755 kilometres southeast of the blown Deepwater Horizon platform – could also be endangered. “The Florida Strait is very narrow,” said Liu. “The local wind effect could bring the oil across the strait to Cuba.” (The Associated Press)

Other USF marine researchers think there’s also a possibility that the oil could flow directly to Cuba’s northern shore before flowing back up to the Florida Keys. The island’s cash-strapped economy relies heavily on tourists, and most come for a chance to bask in the sun at the white-sand beach resorts like Varadero along the northern coast. A loss of any of that income could be devastating, as Cuba is already reeling from the damage done by three 2008 hurricanes, as well as the effects of the global economic crisis.

Meanwhile, astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station have said they could see the oil spill while passing over the Gulf of Mexico. “It looks very scary,” Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov told reporters via a video link. (BBC)

Leaks in a riser pipe coming out of the top of the seabed well have spewed an estimated 800,000 litres of crude daily into surrounding waters daily since April 22, two days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana. BP said Tuesday that it had spent $625 million US on response efforts to date, including grants to boost tourism in Gulf states such as Florida.

The spill has already dumped oil debris ashore, especially in Louisiana but also on the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, threatening fisheries and wildlife refugees. The Obama administration is grappling with a widening environmental and economic disaster for which it holds BP responsible. Wildlife and environmental groups accused BP of holding back information on the real size and impact of the growing slick, and urged President Barack Obama to order a more direct federal government role in the spill response. To the relief of Florida officials, the Coast Guard said laboratory tests had shown that 50 tar balls found this week on the Lower Keys – a mecca for divers, snorkelers, fishermen and beach goers – were not from the Gulf spill.

Local tourism authorities said damage had already been inflicted by the negative publicity linked to the spill. “Even if we don’t get a gumball-sized tar ball down here in the next month, there has already been significant perception damage to Florida Keys and Florida tourism,” said Andy Newman of the Monroe Tourism Development Council. “We understand we are not out of the woods yet, that there’s more oil out there,” he said. (Reuters) Newman said tar balls were not uncommon in the Florida Keys, as 8,000 commercial vessels pass through the Florida Straits each year and some, defying anti-pollution rules, wash fuel oil from their tanks, which then forms into balls. But he hoped the news there was no link to the oil spill would be good for this month’s Memorial Day weekend.

U.S. and Cuban officials are holding “working level” talks on how to respond to the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is believed to be dumping some 5,000 barrels of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico, two State Department officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The talks add to signs of concern that strong currents could carry the slick far from the site of the spill, possibly threatening the Florida Keys and the pristine white beaches along Cuba’s northern coast. They are also a rare moment of cooperation between two countries locked in conflict for more than half a century.

“I can confirm that they are ongoing and going on at the working level,” State Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters in Washington. “It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbours, not just the islands, but those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters.” (The Associated Press) Duguid said that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana also delivered a diplomatic note Wednesday informing the Cuban government about the spill and what is known about its projected movement. Washington maintains the Interest Section in Cuba instead of an embassy. “We provided background related to the cause of the spill, stressed that stopping the oil leak is our top priority and explained the projected movement of the spill,” Duguid said. “We also communicated the U.S. desire to maintain a clear line of communication with the Cuban government on developments.” (The Associated Press)

It was not clear if the U.S. has offered assistance to Havana in the event the oil hits Cuban beaches, or if officials here would accept. In 2005, then-President Fidel Castro offered the U.S. medical assistance after Hurricane Katrina, including sending Cuban doctors to treat storm victims. The State Department declined the offer.

In Washington, far from the oil spill, BP and Transocean officials once again defended their company practices at a U.S. congressional committee examining the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP America CEO Lamar McKay and Steven Newman, the CEO of Transocean Ltd., appeared side by side Wednesday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Similar hearings last week before different committees resulted in what President Barack Obama called a “ridiculous spectacle” in which the executives appeared to be “falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else.” (CBC) This time, the executives whose companies are being investigated for the devastating spill showed slightly more contrition. “There is a deep and steadfast resolve to do all we humanly can to stop this leak, contain the spill and minimize the damage,” McKay said. (CBC) “Ours is an industry that must put safety first,” Newman added. (CBC)

Instead, the finger pointing Wednesday was done primarily by Rep. John Mica, a Republican of Florida, who sought to pin blame for the disaster on Obama’s administration. Outlining what he called the “Obama oil spill timeline,” Mica said the administration failed to heed warnings about the need for more regulation. He said it also issued “basically a carte blanche recipe for disaster” in approving drilling by the Deepwater Horizon, leased from Transocean by oil giant BP PLC, and several dozen other wells. “I’m not going to point fingers at the BP, the private industry, when it’s the government’s responsibility to set the standards,” he said. (CBC)

In prepared testimony for a congressional committee, National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger said BP had failed to disclose results from its test of chemical dispersants used on the spill. He also said it had tried to withhold video showing the true magnitude of the leak. “The federal government should immediately take over all environmental monitoring, testing, and public safety protection from BP,” he said. “The Gulf of Mexico is a crime scene and the perpetrator cannot be left in charge of assessing the damage.” (Reuters)

The Washington-based Center for American Progress published comments by its health experts Lesley Russell and Ellen-Marie Whelan saying the huge spill, and the dispersants being used against it, posed “insidious and unknown” human risks. Noting the federal government had allowed BP to test the undersea use of dispersants, they added, “But are we letting the fox guard the hen house by letting the oil companies determine the safety of these cleaning agents?” (Reuters)

There was no immediate comment from Cuban authorities on the oil spill talks.

Also Wednesday, the Bahamian government said it would seek to recover costs from BP PLC – the oil giant that owns a majority interest in the blown well that caused the disaster – if the crude oil spreads to Bahamian waters and a clean-up operation is required. “Any money that is spent in a possible clean-up the government would be looking to be reimbursed, and the entire exercise being paid for by BP,” said Commander Patrick McNeil, head of the Bahama’s National Oil Spill Contingency team. (The Associated Press)

Relations between the United States and Cuba are at a low, despite optimism that President Barack Obama would usher in a new spirit of cooperation. Still, the two countries have pushed to improve cooperation in dealing with natural disasters and fighting drug trafficking, and have resumed twice-yearly conversations on immigration. Coast Guard officials from the two countries maintain regular contact on a variety of maritime issues.

Cuban state media has reported daily on the oil spill – and Fidel Castro decried the ecological disaster in an opinion piece as evidence the world’s capitalist governments are in thrall to large corporations. But authorities have been remarkably quiet about what effect the spill might have on the islands. Orlando Rey, an Environment Ministry scientist, said on May 5 that the spill did not appear to be a threat to Cuba, despite early reports the oil might get caught in the loop. But there has been no update since then, despite the growing alarm coming from U.S. scientific circles. The government has not responded to a request from The Associated Press for more information, and officials at several Cuban maritime and meteorological institutes have said they have no further information.

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