Oil Spill May Be Five Times Bigger Than Previously Thought

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The Telegraph/UK

Oil Spill May Be Five Times Bigger Than Previously Thought

Oil from the wrecked Deepwater Horizon rig is feared to be gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at five times the latest estimate of the US Coastguard, according to satellite imagery studied by industry experts.

by
Philip Sherwell, US Editor

A Northern Gannet bird, which is covered in oil from a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico, pokes its head out from under a towel as members of Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research and the International Bird Research Center prepare to hydrate it in Fort Jackson, La., Saturday, May 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The view from space indicates that the oil may be leaking at a rate of
25,000
barrels a day, dwarfing the figure of 5,000 barrels that US officials
and
the British oil giant BP have used in recent days.

That would mean that some nine million gallons may already have escaped
from
the underwater well following the April 20 explosion that killed 11
rig
workers. It suggests the disaster will almost certainly prove greater
than
the Exxon Valdez tanker spill off Alaska in 1989, which released 11
million
gallons and was the worst previous spill at sea.

President Barack Obama will visit the region on Sunday morning, aides
have
announced. The trip comes amid mounting criticism that the White House
has
been slow to react to the crisis.

His predecessor, George W Bush, faced similar anger over the federal
government's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the government
has
emphasised that responsibility for the clean-up rests with BP, which
leased
the rig and initially played down the scale of the leak.

As the administration steps up its operations, the Pentagon will spray
the
slick with chemical dispersants from military C-130 planes, although
environmental groups warned that these could also seriously damage the

eco-system.

Menwhile Eric Holder, the country's attorney general, is dispatching a
team of
lawyers to New Orleans to assess whether any laws have been broken.
BP,
which leased the rig and owned the oil rights, had downplayed the
possible
danger of any spill - predicting "no significant adverse impact" -
when it submitted its exploration plan last year.

The scale of the looming catastrophe was still unclear yesterday as
strong
winds hampered an emergency operation to mop up the 2,200 sq mile
slick
being blown towards the coast of five US states.

Even BP has acknowledged that the 5,000-barrels-a-day figure for the
leak -
already a five-fold increase on the 1,000 barrels that it initially
gave -
is only a "guesstimate". The Coastguard has also said that that
leak rate could turn out to be much greater than 5,000 barrels.

The implications of the higher figures for the fishing waters, wildlife
and
beaches of the Gulf - and the residents whose livelihoods depend upon
them -
are potentially devastating.

John Amos, director of SkyTruth, a satellite data monitoring outfit that

supplies analysis to environmental groups, told The Sunday
Telegraph

that the images and information made public by BP indicated that the
slick
was made up of at least six million gallons of oil.

"That is a conservative estimate and it would mean that oil is leaking
at
a rate of 20,000 barrels a day," he said. "That's a real
eye-opener. And I believe the true figure is significantly higher."

Ian MacDonald, a Florida professor of oceanography who tracks maritime
oil
seepage, estimated that more than nine million gallons may already
have
escaped into the sea on the basis of higher industry estimates of the
rate
of leakage. BP engineers have been desperately and unsuccessfully
trying to
use unmanned submarines to initiate a failed switch-off device on the
well
about a mile beneath the surface of the water.

In the absence of such a quick-fix solution, the company is pursuing two
other
remedies to stop the leak, but both will take weeks or months.

In the medium-term, the company is hoping to cover the leaks with
100-ton
steel domes that would capture the escaping oil and funnel it back to a
ship
at the surface through pipes. The technology has been deployed for
leaks at
much shallower depths but has never been used for a deep-sea spill.

It has also dispatched a drill ship to the area to begin digging a
relief well
that would intercept the oil from the existing pipes at about 18,000
feet
below the surface. This will allow the company to close off the
leaking
well, but the process will take at least three months and possibly
much
longer.

At the same time, investigations have been launched into the two crucial

failures - why the rig exploded and then why the automatic switch-off
device
did not then activate. Oil industry analysts believe the explosion was

caused by a "blow-back" when a pressure surge thrust natural gas
up to the rig platform. One area under focus is a recently-completed
cementing operation by the company Haliburton, which was intended to
prevent
oil and gas from escaping by filling gaps between the outside of pipes
and
the inside of the hole drilled into the ocean floor into which they
fitted.

According to a 2007 US government report, cementing was a factor in 18
of 39
well blow-outs in the Gulf of Mexico over a 14-year period. And
investigators have also been told that cementing was a likely cause of
a
major 10-week blow-out in the Timor Sea off Australia last year.

Haliburton has declined to comment while the cause of the accident is
being
investigated and lawsuits are pending.

The second disastrous failure occurred when the rig's "blowout
preventer"
- equipment that should have automatically blocked the well when the
explosion occurred - failed to work. It has since emerged that the
device
did not have a remote-control shut-off mechanism - these are commonly
required in most offshore oil producing nations, but not the US.

Fifty miles away, on the Louisiana coastline, communities that rely on
the sea
for their existence are now braced for the worst. Oyster beds could
take 20
years to recover and world shrimp supplies will plummet as the Gulf
waters
are the largest source of the seafood.

There is widespread anger, not just at BP but also the federal
government for
what is perceived as a hopelessly tardy response. Locals have
expressed
disbelief that the deployment of booms - special floating barriers -
to
protect the coast only began nine days after the explosion.

In its initial statements, BP indicated that could handle the leak, but
in
recent days has appealed for urgent help from the government and other
oil
industry companies.

Mr Obama dispatched Cabinet ministers and top officials to the disaster
zone
on Friday. But there was resentment locally that he had not visited
the
region and he was last night [SAT] scheduled to deliver a humourous
speech
at the black-tie celebrity-studded White House Correspondents' Dinner
in a
Washington ballroom.

The announcement yesterday morning that he would make a trip to
Louisiana
today came as conservative critics called the oil spill "Obama's
Katrina".

In New Orleans, Jeff Crouere, host of the "Ringside Politics" radio
show, said that Mr Obama's approach to the crisis was being compared -

unfavourably - to President Bush's handling of the fall-out from the
hurricane.

"Five years on from Katrina, we feel another president has been ignoring

us," he told The Sunday Telegraph.

"Another disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is heading for the shorelines of

Louisiana. Once again, the federal government has bungled the
response. In
contrast to President Bush, who waited four days after Katrina to send

federal help to New Orleans, President Obama has waited nine days to
act
after the horrific oil disaster in the Gulf.

"It should have been a top priority for the Obama administration in the
minutes after the disaster, not waiting over almost ten full days to
take
serious action.

We are finally seeing the federal cavalry descending on the impact zone
with
booms, boats and personnel, but it is way too late. It would have been
much
easier to accomplish containment goals one week ago."

Another political embarrassment for Mr Obama is that he had only
recently
announced White House approval for a controversial expansion of
offshore oil
exploration.

The policy has been enthusiastically pushed by Republicans such as
former
vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin - who litters speeches with
the
phrase "drill, baby drill" - and has also been backed by a
majority of Americans since fuel prices soared.

But environmental groups and many members of the president's Democratic
party
are fiercely opposed to new drilling off America's coastline. And the
White
House said last week that no new licences would be granted while the
cause
of the current disaster is investigated.

Several lawsuits have been filed against BP, Transocean, the owner of
the
Deepwater Horizon rig, and other oil industry companies involved in
the
operation, on behalf of residents and businesses as well as survivors
and
relatives of those killed in the April 20 explosion.

But such legal matters were far from the minds of the hundreds of
mourners who
attended Friday's memorial service for Wyatt Kempt in the small rural
Louisiana town of Jonesville Mr Kemp, 27, who was married to his
teenage
sweetheart and had two young daughters, worked on Deepwater Horizon
for
three years, following his own father into the dangerous world of the
offshore oil fields.

"Wyatt liked the work and the money was good," said his grandmother,
Carolyn
Kemp. "There aren't many options for paying the bills round here."
Indeed,
Mr Kemp's brother Sandon will return to another rig after coming home
to
attend the service.

No bodies have been recovered from the waters. But a survivor told Mrs
Kemp
that there was no chance that her grandson escaped the series of
blasts that
ripped through the pumphouse where he was last seen.

When the rig exploded, he was just 75 minutes away from the end of his
three-week stint at sea. Only the helicopter ride back to land should
have
awaited him.

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