About 1,000 Barrels a Day Gush From Well on Seafloor as BP Rushes to Contain Damage
By RUSSELL GOLD, GUY CHAZAN And BEN CASSELMAN
A boat with an oil boom tries to contain crude in the Gulf about seven miles from the explosion.
The oil well connected to a drilling rig that sank in the Gulf of Mexico last week after a fiery explosion is gushing crude oil, raising fears of a severe environmental hazard.
An oily sheen on Sunday covered 600 square miles, an area twice as large as the five boroughs of New York. The slick, which is spreading north, is about 70 miles south of the Mississippi and Alabama coastline, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
Efforts to shut off the well have been unsuccessful. The leak, which was discovered Saturday through information from underwater cameras, is still gushing 1,000 barrels a day from the seafloor.
The offshore accident has left BP PLC, the U.K.-based company that was exploring for oil on the rig, scrambling to contain both the spill and any potential damage to its reputation. BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward flew to the gulf coast on Friday to oversee the response.
BP has mobilized most of its senior management to deal with the oil spill, which is being seen as potentially the biggest crisis the company has faced since the explosion and fire at its Texas City, Texas, refinery five years ago that left 15 people dead and scores injured.
The fallout for BP and the oil industry could largely depend on the spill's severity and the extent of its ecological impact. An unknown amount of crude has already been released deep underwater, and it wasn't clear how quickly crews could disable the well. The Coast Guard hasn't offered any estimates of the total spill.
On Sunday the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the oil hasn't affected the Louisiana coastline, and was likely to remain offshore for three days according to current forecasts.
"We've no shoreline impact at this time," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said Sunday in a press conference. "Our overaching goal is to secure this well while the oil is as far offshore as possible."
Adm. Landry said the well wasn't completely open—and that if it was, the rate of outflow would be many times the current 1,000 barrels a day.
The job of shutting off the well is made all the more difficult by its location. Much of the critical equipment is under almost 5,000 feet of water on the seafloor. A well in such deep water was unthinkable in prior decades, but the industry has pushed the technological envelope in recent years in its search for new sources of oil and natural gas.
The spill comes as the industry is hoping to expand potentially lucrative offshore drilling into new parts of Alaska, the east coast of the U.S. and parts of the Gulf of Mexico long off-limits to the industry.
Late last month, President Barack Obama gave preliminary approval to expanded offshore drilling, although that legislation, expected this week, has slowed amid Washington wrangling.
University of California Santa Barbara Prof. Keith Clarke, who studied a 1969 oil spill off the Southern California coast, said: "Worst-case scenario would be loss of sea life, especially sea birds and marine mammals. Fishing could be significantly impacted. A great deal depends on how long the site leaks."
BP has deployed 32 spill-response vessels to skim off the oil slick and prevent it from reaching shore. About one-third of the world's supply of oil dispersant—about 100,000 gallons—is ready to be used, the company said. "Given the current conditions and the massive size of our response, we are confident in our ability to tackle this spill offshore," Mr. Hayward said in a statement.
Steve Benz, head of the Marine Spill Response Corp., said he was gearing up for the "single largest response effort in MSRC's 20-year history."
Since oil is lighter than water, the spilled oil is slowly rising from a mile deep.
Recovering oil in calm waters is a fairly easy task, says Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of New Hampshire. But the waters have been choppy in the past couple days, and authorities won't send out skimming boats and other equipment if emergency workers could be in danger.
The Coast Guard said Sunday that the weather was expected to improve on Monday, enabling oil-collection efforts to resume.
Rough seas also churn up the oil, mixing it up with water to form a sticky emulsion that can't be skimmed off the surface as easily. "It's almost like a fluffy, fluffy chocolate mousse," Ms. Kinner said. "That's really really difficult to gather up."
The initial efforts are aimed at using remote-controlled submarines to activate a 450-ton device on the seafloor that can clamp off the well.
The submarine tactic is continuing, but at the same time BP is bringing in another rig to drill down and intercept the existing well. It would then inject a dense fluid into the well to block it and prevent further spillage. BP officials said it could take two to three months for this to work.
The company is also looking at covering the underwater area with a giant dome to suck up the leaking oil and treat it on a ship.
The spill started when the rig, the Deepwater Horizon owned by Switzerland-based Transocean Inc. and contracted by BP, was putting the final touches on a well in 5,000 feet of water last week that had successfully encountered a deep reservoir containing tens of millions of barrels of oil. On Tuesday evening, a fire broke out.
Most workers evacuated but 11 are missing and presumed dead.
Some 36 hours after the initial well blowout, the rig sank to the bottom of the Gulf. Remote-controlled submarines were sent to the seafloor and sent initially hopeful reports that the well appeared to be sealed off. But further inspection over the weekend showed that the pipe still attached to the well equipment on the seafloor was gushing oil.
It is unclear how long the pipe has been leaking at the current estimated rate of 1,000 barrels a day, but the spill could have begun on Thursday, the Coast Guard said. "Our initial guesses are when the rig exploded and subsequently sank in the water, it bent that pipe over it completely to the bottom of the seafloor," said spokesman Erik Swanson.
Although there were no preliminary estimates on the amount of oil released so far, this appears to be the largest oil spill in the gulf for a decade at least. There were several oil spills associated with hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, but none that exceeded 2,000 barrels. The worst oil spill in U.S. history was the 260,000 barrels dumped into Prince William Sound in Alaska from the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
—Angel Gonzalez and Leslie Eaton contributed to this article.
Write to Russell Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org, Guy Chazan at email@example.com and Ben Casselman at firstname.lastname@example.org