Coast Guard: Oil Slick Not Moving, More Booms on the Way

(Dow Jones Newswires), May 5, 2010

Coast Guard Commandant Thad W. Allen said Wednesday he has alerted officials in Florida and Alabama that the states could be hit by oil from a damaged well under the Gulf of Mexico, but so far the slick is largely staying put offshore.

Cleanup crews are taking advantage of good weather to try to burn some of the oil on the surface on Wednesday.

BP Plc (BP, BP.LN) said earlier Wednesday it had capped one of three leaks in the damaged well but that hadn't reduced the overall flow of oil into the water.

Admiral Allen said teams responding to the Deepwater Horizon spill are lining up more oil-containing booms and other materiel in case the flow of oil from the damaged well increases. BP executives have said the flow from the well could surge to as much as 60,000 barrels a day, 12 times the current official estimate. Admiral Allen said it's not clear what the potential outflow of the gushing well is or could be.

Allen said there have been delays getting booms and chemical dispersants out of warehouses around the country and deployed to contain the slick. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told him Wednesday morning that workers in St. Bernard Parish have been at the waterside with little to do because no booms are available to lay on the water's surface.

BP is liable for paying for that material while Admiral Allen took responsibility for the logistics logjam.

"The federal on-scene coordinator and the commandant are accountable to make this work," he said.

A major factor working in favor of cleanup crews and Gulf Coast communities is that the slick doesn't appear to be moving much.

"We're in some kind of a stasis right now. I don't know why but I'll take it," Allen, the government's crisis commander, said from an airplane phone as he flew Wednesday to the Gulf of Mexico.

He said he has asked scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess whether some underwater flow,
perhaps currents from the Mississippi River, is holding the spill at bay.

The glimmer of good news comes at a time of wildly varying accounts of what the worst-case scenario could be.

Estimates of the flow of oil have varied from an initial 1,000 barrels a day to the current, official 5,000 barrels a day estimate. BP officials told members of Congress Tuesday the flow could surge to as much as 60,000 barrels a day if the machinery still on the well gave way.

Allen said the response team has to prepare for the worst, which would be an uncontrolled flow.

"I can just tell you this, and I'm not trying to be glib: If we look at the overall potential if we lose that wellhead, we can be at 100,000 barrels a day," Allen said. "We are lining up resources to deal with that if we have to."

This weekend, BP hopes to lower a massive concrete and steel "recovery dome" over the well to capture the flow and pump it to a tanker ship on the surface.

Similar efforts worked on rigs that sunk in much shallower Gulf waters after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Allen said, but it has never been tried at anything like the 5,000-foot depth of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

"You play the cards you're dealt," he said.

Allen said he knew there would likely be a major environmental disaster as soon as he was notified of the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon the night of April 20.

"Whenever you have fire on rig like that, you know it's a major marine casualty," he said, "Whenever you have an explosion like that, you know there would be instability on the rig."

The 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel on the drilling platform "in itself was a discharge threat," he said. Most of the oil discharge was
burning as it was released from the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit, or MODU.

"We didn't have to have the MODU collapse to have a calamity. All we had to have was the fire go out," he said.

When rig did sink on April 22, "the game's on at that point," he said.

As BP struggles to stop the flow, the federal team has no clear handle on the scope of the disaster, Allen said. Team members do not know what is holding the flow back in the pipe protruding from the ocean floor, whether a faulty blow-out preventer did partially activate and hold some oil in, or how unstable the wellhead is.

"We just don't know," he said.

Copyright (c) 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.