Spill Responders Brace for Hurricane Season's First Storm

HOUSTON (Dow Jones Newswires), June 25, 2010

Responders to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history have struggled for two months to kill the flow from the mile-deep Gulf of Mexico well. The challenge will soon be compounded by the arrival of powerful storms that pummel the region in the summer.

Meteorologists say a tropical wave brewing in the Caribbean could become Alex, this season's first named storm, by this weekend. BP, which owns the well, and federal authorities have been making preparations to mitigate the impact of storms on their oil containment efforts, but their plans hinge on a hurricane hitting later in the summer. If Alex materializes and heads over the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the 1,800-person flotilla that has been painstakingly assembled by BP and the U.S. Coast Guard will have to scatter days in advance.

That means that the gusher, which has been somewhat contained by two storage vessels vacuuming crude from the damaged Macondo well, would once again freely flow into the water. The drilling of the two relief wells that are supposed to permanently kill the leak by early August would be stalled for days. Moreover, if a storm shows up next week, BP's plans to double the rate of capture to 53,000 barrels a day by bringing a third collecting ship next week could be temporarily dashed. Scientists currently estimate that the well is spewing 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day.

Hurricanes are nothing new to the Gulf Coast, and oil companies routinely evacuate their personnel and sometimes shut down production platforms when a storm approaches. But the oil collection effort, the result of several failures and improvisations, is still a fragile construct. It stops at the slightest sign of bad weather: if lighting is seen within five miles of the well the system must be halted, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen has said. Moreover, the combined onshore and offshore response effort has brought thousands of additional people to hurricane country, which would be need to be evacuated too. There are over 6,000 response vessels from Florida to Louisiana that are helping in the effort to spot oil and place protective booms.

The interruption of BP's delicate dance above the spill site would have to begin six to seven days before the arrival of a storm, Adm. Allen said in a recent news conference.

"We're going to have to look at the tracks of these storms, look at the probabilities, and have to act very early on," said Adm. Allen. Any storm entering the area between the Yucatan Channel and the Straits of Florida "should prompt action at that point."

At the Deepwater Horizon site, the Discoverer Enterprise would have to be the first ship to unplug from the collection, six to seven days before a storm arrives. BP spokesman David Nicholas said it could take "a couple of days" to disconnect the fixed riser that captures oil from the well and ships it to the vessel. The Q4000, a smaller collecting vessel, would take less time to disconnect because it is connected to the well via flexible hoses, Nicholas said. The 15 or so subsea robots that crawl around the seabottom would have to be pulled up into their home vessels, and the two drilling rigs, each of which have 150 people on board, must also pick up and leave, Nicholas said. He added that the company would act with utmost caution to the perceived threat of a storm. "The safety of the people is paramount," he said.

Efforts Underway To Improve Hurricane Readiness

BP and the federal government have proposed several plans to toughen up the response effort's resistance to hurricanes.

On Tuesday, BP expects the Helix Producer, a third containment vessel, to arrive on scene. This ship can withstand harsher weather conditions but if the tropical wave becomes a full-fledged storm the Helix may not arrive in time. Another "hurricane efficient" ship, the Toisa Pisces, is also expected to join the collection effort later this summer, according to a letter sent by BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles to the federal government.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spoke with representatives of oil producers in the Gulf of Mexico last week in Washington about the possibility of using nearby platforms or pipelines to contain spilling oil. Some pipelines can still operate during hurricanes, which is why using them would make it an attractive option. "We've actually identified a couple of platforms that are in the area that might be capable of taking the product," Adm. Allen said.

The rerouting of pipelines and other infrastructure is "quite complex" and could impact existing production in the area, said a person familiar with the situation. Oil companies operating this infrastructure are still in discussions with the government and no decision has been made, the person said.

That may be too late to avoid the first named storm of the season. Jim Rouiller, a senior energy meteorologist for Planalytics, said Thursday that a cluster of thunderstorm activity in the Caribbean had a high chance of becoming Alex. Right now models show that the storm could hit anywhere from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Tampico, Mexico, Rouiller said. There are some models that put the storm hitting near Corpus Christi, an oil refining center in south Texas or in Brownsville on the Texas-Mexico border, he said. The storm could be in the Gulf by early next week.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's forecast calls for an 85% chance of an above-normal season, with a 70% probability of 14 to 23 named storms, eight to 14 hurricanes and three to seven major hurricanes.

NOAA says that depending on whether the storm hits, it could push the oil slick closer to the shore or further offshore. The high winds could help break down the oil, although they could also help it spread over a wider area. Storms' surges could carry crude far inland.

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