"Any exact estimation of what's flowing out of those pipes down there is probably impossible at this time due to the depth of the water and our ability to try and assess that from remotely operated vehicles and video," said Admiral Allen at a news briefing today.
U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen (Photo courtesy USCG)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had said earlier this week that 5,000 barrels a day were spilling from the three known leaks in the 5,000 feet of pipe from the sunken wreck of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig now strewn across the sea floor.
As of this afternoon, a light oil slick had washed up on the Louisiana shore at the mouth of the Mississippi River and on the barrier islands.
The oil rig Deepwater Horizon is owned by the Swiss company Transocean Ltd. and leased by the British company BP, which is responsible for stopping the flow of oil and cleaning up the mess.
The Deepwater Horizon had been drilling an exploratory well about 51 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana when it exploded April 20, burned for 36 hours and sank, leaving the wellhead uncapped and spilling oil unchecked into the gulf.
President Obama plans to visit the area Sunday to assess the situation. He has called a halt to any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent a similar disaster.
"One of the things the President wants is to make sure is that we're not going to rest until these leaks are stopped, the well is capped and oil is cleaned up," John Brennan, assistant to the President for homeland security, told reporters today.
Declared a Spill of National Significance, the oil now is estimated to cover an area the size of Puerto Rico, which has an area of 3,515 square miles.
Oil containment booms are washed up on land in heavy surf near the mouth of the Mississippi River as oil from the Deepwater Horizon touches shore. April 30, 2010. (Photo by Sean Gardner courtesy Greenpeace)
Experts fear that it will result in an environmental disaster as the oil slick being spread from the Deepwater Horizon accident threatens the Gulf shoreline from Florida to Texas, the Gulf of Mexico commercial fishing and shrimping industry and habitat of hundreds of bird species and endangered sea turtles.
NOAA's Assessment and Restoration Division is coordinating seven resource assessment workgroups - birds, mammals and turtles, fish, shoreline habitats, water column injury, data management, and human use - with natural resource trustees from five states and BP representatives.
On Friday, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, Alabama Governor Bob Riley and Mississipppi Governor Haley Barbour each declared a state of emergency to prepare for what Governor Riley called "an unprecedented environmental disaster."
The response to the oil spill continued today with limited operations due to inclement weather, and operations are supposed to resume Sunday, weather permitting.
"It's very rough and windy down there, as you know," said Admiral Allen this afternoon. "The prevailing winds have been from the south and southeast, which would mean it's pushing towards Louisiana. We know it's lingering offshore - there's been some sheening that's approached shore. But at the time of this conversation, we have no reported actual contact with the heavy oil on the beaches in and around Louisiana."
Admiral Allen set forth four operational priorities to be accomplished. "Number one, the ability to stop the leak at its source; number two, the ability to attack the oil at sea; number three, to protect the resources ashore; and number four, to recover and mitigate the impacted areas," he said.
BP is the responsible party for accomplishing these tasks, and Admiral Allen said that he, as the National Incident Commander, is the accountable party.
He said there is "extensive pressure on British Petroleum to come up with technical solutions to first stop the leakage that is apparent around the wellhead and the pipe riser, and then to facilitate the drilling of a relief well which will relieve the pressure on the current well and allow it to be capped. Only that remove the threat, when the well is capped," he said.
Allen said today that Friday's test of an underwater robot that shot a chemical dispersant at the site of the leak appeared to be successful. Response crews worked through the night using a remotely operated vehicle to dispense 3,000 gallons of sub-surface dispersant.
More than 142,000 gallons of dispersant has already been sprayed on the oil slick from the air and that effort will continue with two high-capacity aircraft from the U.S. Air Force.
U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen addresses members of the Unified Command. May 1, 2010. (Photo courtesy USCG)
The admiral said the next focus of operations on the surface will be Mississippi and Alabama, where he expects the oil will be pushed by the winds over the next two to three days.
"As the weather moves around from the south to the southwest, which it could over the next 48 to 72 hours, that potentially starts to put Mississippi and Alabama at risk. We do three-day trajectories and they're updated a couple of times a day, and it allows us to try and figure out where we need to put those resources, Admiral Allen said.
"We have an inordinate amount of boom and other types of materials, but we need to have it where the oil is going to be and the real challenge is trying to predict that. But I think we need to be looking at the implications for Mississippi and Alabama over the next 72 to 96 hours," the admiral said.
BP continues to attack the spill on many fronts - continuing attempts to prevent oil escaping from the subsea well, 5,000 feet below the surface; collecting and separating the oil which enters the water; and drilling a relief well to permanently isolate and secure the leaking well.
At the surface, BP's says the company's response is expanding to mobilize shoreline protection teams and equipment and community liaison staff, while planning for in-situ burning of surface oil several miles offshore. Over 2,500 personnel are now involved in the response effort and preparations are being made for a major protection and cleaning effort on the shorelines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
BP has called on expertise from other companies including Exxon, Shell, Chevron and Anadarko to help it activate the blow out preventer, a series of valves at the wellhead, and to offer technical support on other aspects of the response.
Preliminary estimates indicate that current efforts to contain the spill and secure the well are costing the owners of the oil lease about $6 million per day. This figure is expected to rise as activity increases, BP said in a statement.
The federal Minerals Management Service is in contact with all oil and gas operators in the oiled area. Two platforms have stopped production and one has been evacuated as a safety measure. Some 6.2 million cubic feet of natural gas is shut-in, which is less than one-tenth of a percent of daily gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.
The U.S. Coast Guard's response to a spill of national significance is funded through the U.S. Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This, in turn, is funded from a tax on crude oil that is imported into the United States country, an eight cent a barrel tax. Admiral Allen said "that fund is $1.6 billion right now."
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