US & World

Coast Guard Considers Setting Fire To Gulf Oil Spill

Thousands of barrels of oil have poured into the Gulf of Mexico since a drilling rig exploded and sank last week. Robotic submarines have been trying to shut off the leak without success. Now the Coast Guard is considering burning off as much oil as possible before the slick - 80 miles long and 40 miles wide and growing - makes landfall.

More than 5,000 barrels of oil have poured into the Gulf of Mexico since a deep water drilling rig leased to BP exploded, caught fire and sank last week.

For the last three days, robotic submarines have been trying to activate a large valve on the floor of the Gulf to shut off the oil leak but the operation hasn't been successful.

The oil is coming closer to shore; it's within 20 miles of the coast of Louisiana.

The Coast Guard is considering setting fire to the Gulf, to try to burn off as much oil as possible before the slick makes landfall.

About 60 people fill the Area Command Center which is driving the oil spill containment effort 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. On the back wall are two large projection screens which display the live video feeds from the Remote Operated Vehicles.

The robotic subs are 5,000 feet below sea level, trying to shut off the leaking oil well. It looks like a small version of NASA's Mission Control in Houston. But unlike the moon, this alien landscape is beyond the reach of human beings, no matter what kind of protective suit they might wear.

"We can see them by individual group," says John Houston, BP's logistics section chief, who's sitting in front of a computer screen. "How many helicopters we've got out there. How many fixed-wing aircraft we have."

Down the hall, a grim-faced group of BP executives and Coast Guard officials relay the latest about the oil leak.

"I'm going to say right up front that BP's efforts to secure the source at the blowout preventer have not yet been successful," says Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry. "We're possibly 90 days out from securing the source permanently."

That blowout preventer Admiral Landry referenced should have been the first line of defense. It is a massive high temperature, high pressure valve rated at 15,000 pounds per square inch. It sits on the ocean floor atop the well casing.

The valve was designed to automatically choke off the kind of catastrophic blowout which is suspected of causing the explosion and fire, killing the 11 oil workers and destroying the rig. It also has several back up mechanisms to stop oil from leaking from the wellhead, even after disaster.

But three days of failing to activate it now has the federal government moving to plan B. And the first element of that plan is setting fire to the crude floating in the Gulf.

"The most obvious result of igniting the oil on the surface of the water is that you generate this black plume," says Charlie Henry, an oil expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Although 95 to 98 percent of the oil actually is fully consumed into carbon dioxide and water, you do get some residuals that form, and it's smoke and soot."

The slick is currently 80 miles long and 40 miles wide and growing. BP is building one of the largest pollution containment devices ever constructed which will be placed over the leaking well.

It will capture the oil as it escapes and pump it safely to oil tankers on the surface, but that will take weeks to put in place and become operational.

A new drilling rig was moved into place Tuesday, and as soon as the required permits are in order, it will begin to drill 18,000 feet below the ocean floor.

The new well will then move a mile horizontally and a drill bit will attempt to pierce the original well's casing.

"This technology is complex but we are capable of doing it using the latest skills in the industry and our abilities," says Doug Shuttles, BP's chief operating officer. Once we've intercepted the well, we will than inject heavy fluids followed by cement to permanently secure this well and ensure it can no longer flow to the surface."

But this too will take weeks to complete. For the last several days the predominate winds have been from the North and Northwest, which have kept the slick from coming ashore.

Think of the oil like an army, invading from the sea. The best chance the defenders have is to keep the invaders offshore, destroy them before they can gain a beachhead.

BP is spending $2 million a day corralling the slick with booms and ships and bombing it from the air with dispersants.

"We're all very focused on fighting this offshore," Shuttles says. "We have good weather. And we're hitting this thing very hard off shore right now."

He ads BP is using five aircraft continuously, putting dispersants and we're back to skimming.

In the meantime, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida are preparing for the worst: Hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil fouling their beaches and wetlands.

That won't take weeks, it may begin as soon as this weekend. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit