Gulf Oil Spill Reaches Loop Current, Wellhead Still Gushing
ROBERT, Louisiana, May 19, 2010 (ENS) - Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has reached the Loop Current in the form of light to very light sheens, according to observers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. This means the oil eventually could be carried around Florida and into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Loop Current is an area of warm water that comes up from the Caribbean, flowing past the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico. From there, it curves east across the Gulf and flows south parallel to the west Florida Coast. As it flows between Florida and Cuba it becomes the Florida Current as it moves through the Florida Straits, where it joins the Gulf Stream as it travels up the Atlantic Coast.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill showing tendril moving south towards the Loop Current. May 17, 2010. Image by Jeff Schmaltz MODIS Rapid Response Team courtesy NASA)

NOAA explained in a statement that in the time it would take for the Deepwater Horizon oil to travel to the vicinity of the Florida Straits, it would be "highly weathered" and both the natural process of evaporation and the application of chemical dispersants would reduce the oil volume.

The oil may get caught in a clockwise eddy in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and not be carried to the Florida Straits at all, NOAA said.

Oil entrained in the Loop Current would require persistent onshore winds or an eddy on the edge of the Loop Current for it to reach the Florida shoreline. The weathered and diluted oil would likely appear in isolated locations in the form of tar balls, NOAA said.

The Coast Guard has confirmed that the tar balls collected Tuesday in the Florida Keys did not originate with the BP oil spill.

Both the location of the Loop Current and location of the oil slick are dynamic and constantly changing. NOAA tracks the location of the surface oil daily through analysis of satellite imagery, observer overflights with helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, as well as advanced sensing technology on aircraft.

Based on NOAA's daily trajectory maps and fisheries closure maps, mapping experts estimate the exent of the spill at 78,000 square miles. NOAA has closed about 19 percent of gulf waters to fishing.

A month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles southeast of Louisiana on April 20, oil is still gushing from the broken wellhead. The British company BP had leased the rig and had finished drilling but not capping a test well when the explosion happened. Eleven crewmembers are missing and presumed dead.

The resulting oil spill now covers at least 78,000 square miles of the gulf and has washed ashore in Louisiana and Alabama.

To date, 12 bottlenose dolphins, 162 sea turtles and 35 birds have been found oiled, and most have died, with the exception of four birds that have been cleaned and released and six that are still being cared for.

But wildlife scientists said Tuesday that we may never know about most of the marine mammal and bird deaths from this massive oil spill because many species spend their entire lives out at sea.

A dolphin jumps out of oily water near Louisiana's Chandeleur Island in the Gulf of Mexico. May 19, 2010. (Photo by Sean Gardner courtesy Greenpeace)

Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters on a teleconference, "What concerns us most is what we can't see, the birds and animals that spend their lives offshore. Millions of birds migrate thru these marshes, some spend most of their lives at sea, and they are foraging in the spill area right now."

Many bird species have migrated north for the spring and summer and so have not been affected by the spill, but the brown pelicans and least terns that are breeding on the coast will bear the brunt of the spill, the wildlife scientists said.

This is the spring spawning season for bluefin tuna, yellowtail tuna, Spanish and spring mackerels and many other fish species, and it is the beginning of nesting season for sea turtles. All of the species of sea turtles that swim in the Gulf of Mexico are federally listed as threatened or endangered.

In addition to the oil, more than 710,000 gallons of chemical dispersants have been sprayed on the surface of the gulf and released 5,000 feet down at the broken wellhead. The dispersants act like soap to break down oil so it can be more readily digested by oil-consuming microorganisms. This process partially biodegrades both the oil and dispersants.

The product being used is sold under the brand name Corexit and manufactured by Nalco Co., whose current roster of board members includes one man who is formerly a veteran BP executive and another formerly with Exxon.

 

Corexit has been tested and approved by EPA, but is just one of the 18 dispersants approved by the environmental agency. Twelve are considered are more effective on southern Louisiana crude oil than Corexit, and some up to 20 times less toxic, EPA data shows.

Corexit is a surfectant and chemical that is basically a detergent, said National Park Service wildlife veterinarian Dr. Steve Murawski. "It has a relatively short half life, it has toxic properties. When tested against small fishes and invertebrates, it has moderate to low toxicity, it no impact to birds that we know of."

Nalco announced that oil spill respondent requests for dispersants has generated about $40 million in sales, about one percent of revenues the company expects to realize this year.

Nalco said the company will donate $2 million to the Nalco Foundation for grants to organizations conducting relief and clean-up efforts.

The wildlife scientists agree that between the oil and the dispersants, the gulf ecosystem will be affected for a long time to come.

"This spill is unprecedented," said Gould. "The effects will persist in the gulf ecosystem and across North America for years and decades."

"The long term impacts are likely to express themselves for years to come," said National Park Service wildlife veterinarian Dr. Steve Murawski.

Glenn Plumb, NOAA Fisheries director of scientific programs and chief science advisor, said, "The long-term effects include the contamination and degradation across ecosystems, the impacts to predator-prey relationships, and the loss of habitat due to human disturbance during response activities."

Gas from the damaged Deepwater Horizon wellhead is burned by the drillship Discoverer Enterprise. May 17, 2010 (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

BP's subsea efforts are detailed in the diagram at the end of this report. The company is focused on stopping the flow of oil from the well through interventions through the blow out preventer, a complex series of valves at the wellhead that failed to function as designed and shut off the oil.

The riser insertion tube tool containment system that was put into place in the end of the leaking riser on Saturday is operational. It is estimated to be collecting and carrying about 2,000 barrels a day of oil to flow up to the drillship Discoverer Enterprise on the surface 5,000 feet above. The oil is being stored on the drillship while the gas mixed with it is being flared off.

Estimates of how much oil is issuing from the wellhead range widely from 5,000 to 70,000 barrels a day.

Plans continue to develop what BP calls a "top kill operation" where heavy drilling fluids are injected into the well to stem the flow of oil and gas, followed by cement to seal the well. Most of the equipment is on site and preparations continue for this operation, with a view to deployment in the next week or so.

Options have also been developed to combine the top kill with the injection under pressure of a variety of materials, such as tires and balls, into the blowout preventer to seal off the flow of oil and gas.

Work on the first relief well, which began on May 2, continues and another rig began drilling a second relief well on May 16. Each of these wells is estimated to take some three months to complete from the commencement of drilling.

Currently, some 20,000 people are responding to protect the shoreline and wildlife. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is distributing thousands of safety guides and fact sheets to employees involved with the oil spill cleanup, printed in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Health, Safety and Environment workers place oil containment boom on low areas of the beach at Fourchon, Louisiana, May 14, 2010. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is urging BP to hire local workers displaced by the oil spill, including fishermen and workers from the hospitality industry, many of whom have limited English.

More than 1.38 million feet of containment boom and 530,000 feet of sorbent boom have been deployed in attempts to keep the spill from impacting the shore.

More than 970 vessels are responding on site, including skimmers, tugs, barges, and recovery vessels to assist in containment and cleanup efforts, in addition to dozens of aircraft, remotely operated vehicles, and multiple mobile offshore drilling units.

Favorable weather conditions allowed responders to conduct a successful controlled burn operation for the third consecutive day. As part of a coordinated response that combines tactics deployed above water, below water, offshore, and close to coastal areas, the Unified Command says controlled burns efficiently remove oil from the open water in an effort to protect shoreline and wildlife.

BP said today that 15,600 claims for compensation have been filed and 2,700 have been paid.

On Monday, BP announced further grants, totaling $70 million, to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to help mitigate the economic impact of the oil spill.

Including these grants, the cost of the response to date amounts to about $625 million, including the cost of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, previous grants to the gulf states, settlements and federal costs

Meanwhile, in Congress, Republicans have blocked a bid by Democrats to increase the strict liability cap under the Oil Pollution Act to $10 billion.

The strict liability cap refers to the amount an oil company is responsible for without being found at fault for an accident. There is no limit on the compensatory or punitive damages a company can be made to pay if it is found responsible for a spill. There is no limit on how much a company has to pay to clean up a spill.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said setting the strict liability cap arbitrarily at $10 billion might sound good on television, but it could harm the nation's energy security and the ability of American firms to compete against large nationalized oil and gas companies.

"Such a cap would only exclude all but the biggest oil companies from operating offshore," Murkowski said. "The irony is that under such a bill only BP and other foreign supermajors - most of them nationalized companies, such as Saudi Aramco, the Chinese National Oil Company, Russia's Gazprom and Venezuela's state-owned oil giant PDVSA - could produce America's offshore resources."

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar called the $10 billion figure "arbitrary" and said raising the strict liability cap too high would squash competition in the Gulf of Mexico.

President Barack Obama Tuesday expressed frustration with the Senate wrangling over the liability cap. "I am disappointed that an effort to ensure that oil companies pay fully for disasters they cause has stalled in the United States Senate on a partisan basis," he said. "This maneuver threatens to leave taxpayers, rather than the oil companies, on the hook for future disasters like the BP oil spill."

"I urge the Senate Republicans to stop playing special interest politics," Obama said, "and join in a bipartisan effort to protect taxpayers and demand accountability from the oil companies."

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing May 25 on the strict liability cap.

BP diagram shows the sub-surface activity taking place in the attempt to shut off the flow of oil from the broken wellhead, here labeled "Manifold."

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