Stormy Weather Could Delay Oil Spill Clean-Up Efforts

Workers are seen as they use a vacuum hose to capture some of the oil washing on to Fourchon Beach from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on June 28, 2010 in Port Fourchon, Louisiana.
Workers are seen as they use a vacuum hose to capture some of the oil washing on to Fourchon Beach from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on June 28, 2010 in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico is threatening to become a hurricane, but at this point it doesn't appear to be headed towards the blown-out oil well off Louisiana. Still, BP says high seas will probably delay for a week the company's efforts to improve its oil-collection systems.

In the Gulf of Mexico, tropical storm Alex is threatening to build into a full-blown hurricane. It could threaten the coast of Texas or Mexico, but at this point it does not appear to be headed for the blown-out oil well off Louisiana. Even so, it's quite possible that the storm could spawn 10- to 12-foot waves, which could sweep across the gulf and complicate efforts to control the spewing oil well.

Even though BP is collecting about 25,000 barrels of oil a day from the blown-out well, there's still plenty more oil surging into the sea. BP Vice President Kent Wells says that this week, the company was hoping to run a pipe from the well to another ship in order to double their oil collection capacity.

"Basically, we've got about three days of additional work to do," he says. "This is very, I'll call it, precise work. A lot of it's done on the surface. And we require flat sea states to do that work."

The Problem

Unfortunately the seas are not flat. There's a big storm, Alex, way off to the west. It doesn't seem to be threatening the work site with wind and rain, but it is roiling the sea surface for hundreds of miles.

"So it will create waves, and we expect over the next six or seven days that the sea heights to go from the three to four feet ,which they have been, up to perhaps 10, even 12 feet. And that will restrict our ability to do these operations," he says.

Installing this new collection system could potentially be a big deal. If it operates near capacity, it could at long last reduce the torrent of oil to a much smaller trickle. But it's not looking promising for this week, as BP had hoped.

"Depending on weather, we could see a six- to seven-day delay in bringing this next phase of our subsidy containment online," he says.

And if the waves are rough enough, crews could even have to stop collecting oil with the drill-ship Enterprise, which right now is gathering more than half of the oil that's being salvaged from the damaged well.

Effects Of The Storm

In a news conference conducted over a speaker phone, National Incident Commander Thad Allen says the storm system is already affecting the movement of oil across the surface of the gulf.

"It was generally heading east," Allen says.

In fact, people were bracing for it along the panhandle of Florida. But now it's turned more to the north.

"We're very concerned about that. We're sending forces there as we speak," he says.

Oil skimmers will eventually have to head for safety if the seas get too rough, and, at some point, nothing can protect the most vulnerable areas along the coast. If there's a full-blown storm surge with some future storm, then that will push oil deep into the delicate marshes. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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