Friday, May 7, 2010

Engineers move chamber toward Gulf seabed oil leak

By Matthew Bigg Matthew Bigg

VENICE, Louisiana (Reuters) – BP Plc engineers using undersea robots maneuvered a massive metal chamber above a gushing ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, trying to contain a leak that threatens an environmental catastrophe on U.S. shores.

The four-story structure, BP's only short-term hope of controlling the leak, is aimed at capturing most of the unchecked flow of crude nearly 1 mile below the water. If connected successfully, it is hoped the device could pump oil from the bigger of two leaks to a surface tanker, capturing about 85 percent of the gushing crude.

But the technique has never been tried at that depth, where engineers guiding remotely operated vehicles battle darkness, currents and intense undersea pressure. Workers were prepping the seabed before landing the dome, which hovered over the leak in the oil-choked waters.

"It's a very delicate operation," BP spokesman Mark Salt said in Houston. "They're dealing with very dark waters, very, very deep."

Light oil washed ashore for the first time on a chain of islands off the Louisiana coast on Thursday as the slick expanded. At least 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) have poured into the Gulf each day since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded two weeks ago, killing 11 workers.

BP says the containment dome could be operating by Monday. The company is drilling a relief well to halt the leak that could take two or three months to complete.

Engineers have also considered pumping heavy fluids into the top of the failed blowout preventer to plug the leaking well in a technique called "top kill." But that would be "a couple of weeks away," officials said, as BP tries to fix the blowout preventer with underwater robots.

BP has been under heavy pressure from Washington to meet its responsibilities in what could be the largest oil spill in U.S. history. After meeting with BP executives in Houston, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the company and its partners made "some very major mistakes.

"Its life is very much on the line here," Salazar told reporters. "Are they doing everything that they can possibly do? I hope that they are. I want to make sure that is in fact happening."

Salazar reiterated the U.S. government will issue no new offshore drilling permits until an inter-agency panel gives a safety review to President Barack Obama by May 28. In the meantime, existing drilling will continue.


BP shares fell, dropping 3.1 percent in London on Friday, in line with the fall in the broader market. The STOXX Europe 600 Oil and Gas index was down 4.4 percent.

The world's biggest reinsurer, Munich Re, warned payouts for natural catastrophe claims and the U.S. oil spill had placed its 2010 earnings goal in jeopardy. Munich's nearest competitor, Swiss Re, said the spill's cost to the entire industry would be $1.5 billion to $3.5 billion.

The spill threatens an economic and ecological disaster on popular tourist beaches, wildlife refuges and fertile fishing grounds in four states. It has forced Obama to rethink plans to open more waters to offshore drilling.

A sheen of oil washed ashore on much of the Chandeleur Islands, barrier islands that are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, in the first confirmation of the oil slick hitting land, a U.S. response team spokeswoman said.

M.A. Sanjayan, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, flew over the Chandeleur Islands and described seeing "ribbons and ribbons" of orange-colored oil stretching for miles and penetrating the numerous small bays, channels and inlets of the islands.

From the air, he said, the oil containment operations appeared almost futile compared with the enormity of the slick.

"We saw over a dozen skimmers working one slick," he said. "As the boats would approach (the oil), it would just give way right in front of them, from the wake. So they looked like toys, like Q-tips, trying to mop up a very large area."


The heavier oil remains farther off the coast for now, closer to the leak site. But the Mississippi Delta, Breton Sound and Chandeleur Sound are in danger of shoreline contacts over the next few days, officials said.

Kevin Begos, a seafood industry spokesman in Apalachicola, Florida, said the spill has affected the marketplace, even though there's no oil anywhere nearby yet. He said seafood dealers in his area have seen orders drop considerably.

"Right now, it's mostly fear, because oil hasn't come here yet," Begos said.

Alabama tourism officials planned an ad campaign to let tourists know the beaches were still clean and encourage them not to cancel their vacation plans.

"The beaches are beautiful, the weather is great and the water is clean. The oil is way offshore," Alabama real estate agent Bobby Hornsby said in a message to customers.

Some oiled birds, including pelicans and a gannet, had been found, Jeff Dauzat of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said.

About 250 boats deployed protective booms and used dispersants to break up the thick oil on Friday as crews took advantage of another day of calm weather to fight the slick.

By late Saturday or Sunday morning, winds in the Gulf region could pick up to 15 to 20 knots, a National Weather Service meteorologist said. That may make efforts to battle the slick more difficult.

Coast Guard and port officials said there had been no impact so far on ship traffic, and made preparations to clean vessels quickly en route to port to keep traffic moving -- a move that could eventually cause delays.

Dozens of Louisiana fishermen met with a marine toxicologist in a pizza restaurant in Venice late on Thursday and many said they were worried about the spill's impact.

"BP needs to look at more than the bottom line," said Kindra, who declined to give her last name for fear her husband, a fisherman, could be excluded from a temporary jobs program the company is offering.

"We need to put our local people's health as number one. We need to be informed about the dispersants, the oil and the wind even if it's bad news," she said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Daily in New York; Tom Bergin in London; Anna Driver and Chris Baltimore in Houston; Tom Brown and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Michael Peltier in Pensacola; Steve Gorman and Brian Snyder in Mobile; Scott Malone in Boston; and Richard Cowan in Washington; writing by John Whitesides; editing by Eric Beech)

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