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Coast Guard may burn off oil spill

Noah Brenner, Anthony Guegel, Rob Watts, Jonathan Davis & Anthea Pitt, Upstream Online, 27 April 2010

The US Coast Guard may try to burn off an oil slick in the US Gulf coming from the Macondo well in the US Gulf following the disaster at Transocean semi-submersible rig Deepwater Horizon.

Macondo oil spill: The slick as seen from Nasa satellite imagery.

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said the Coast Guard was considering using booms to isolate an area of the spill and then ignite the slick.

Landry said a similar strategy was effective at reducing a spill off Newfoundland, Canada.

"It's a tool in the tool kit," Landry said. "I want to have it at my availability."

"We are possibly 90 days out from securing the source permanently."

The US Congress has a hearing set for early next month where it will discuss the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and the ongoing oil spill in the US Gulf that is flowing from BP's Macondo exploration well.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committe will meet at 930 am local time on 6 May to discuss issues surrounding US offshore oil exploration, including the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

"We were planning this hearing before the Gulf tragedy to discuss the five year plan," committee spokesman Bill Wickers told UpstreamOnline, but members added the Deepwater Horizon to the agenda.

"Many members on committee interested in knowing more about this tragic accident," he said.

A witness list for the hearing has not been set, a committee spokesman told UpstreamOnline.

The announcement comes as UK supermajor BP and the US Coast Guard have bumped up the number of vessels responding to the Macondo spill in the US Gulf to 49 vessels, as they try to contain a slick now estimated to cover an area the size of Rhode Island.

The Coast Guard confirmed that the spill has grown, covering an area 600 miles in circumference and there are now more than 1000 people working on containment.

The crude, which is leaking at an estimated 1000 barrels per day from the broken riser of the well, is about 37 API with a high gas to oil content, BP exec Byron Grote told analysts today.

Seven skimming boats have collected about 1152 barrels of oily water, according to the latest figures from the Coast Guard.

“At the centre of the spill – that’s about 3% of the surface area of the wider sheen – the spill has an average thickness of 0.1milimetre – about the width of a human hair - and is subject to skimming operations,” Grote said on the call.

“And the wider sheen, which has a thickness of one or two hydrocarbon molecules – so that is very tiny – is being addressed through the use of dispersant.”

So far, crews have sprayed 29,140 gallons of dispersant and have another 119,734 gallons ready.

Most of the sheen should dissipate on its own, NOAA official Charlie Henry said earlier.

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry also said there is no “visual evidence” that as much as 700,000 barrels of diesel fuel stored in the pontoons of the Deepwater Horizon, which sunk after the explosion and fire, was leaking.

Boats have set more than 29,000 feet of boom and have another 36,000 feet on order.

Crews have set up staging areas to protect sensitive coastlines at Biloxi, Mississippi; Pensacola, Florida; Venice, Louisiana; Pascagoula, Mississipi and Theodore, Alabama.

Winds today are expected from the north-west with 3-foot to 4-foot seas but the spill is not expected to reach land within the next three days.

Landry said earlier several million dollars have already been spent in response to the incident.

Grote declined to address BP’s costs for the clean up but said the UK supermajor had agreed to post a running tally of the spill’s expense on the Coast Guard’s spill response website in the coming days.

'Rig on scene for relief well'

BP is pushing ahead with plans to spud a relief well at the blown-out Macondo well, with the Transocean’s semi-submersible rig Development Driller now on standby after arriving on location today in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico.

Development Driller III was on scene by 1800 Houston time and is standby by ‘awaiting orders’, according to a US Coast Guard spokesperson.

No imminent drilling is planned as yet, the spokesperson said.

Grote estimated the well would take two to three months to drill and is expected to cost BP about $100 million; in line with estimates for drilling costs at that total depth and water depth.

Development Driller III was already under contract to BP in Mississippi Canyon Block 778, where it was working on the Thunder Horse South development, according to MMS information.

Transocean’s drillship Discoverer Enterprise is also en route to Macondo, in Mississippi Canyon Block 252, to spud a second relief well and could be on the scene as early as 2 May.

'ROV work continues'

Meantime, BP continues work with ROVs to use a “hot stab” to shut the blowout preventer at the wellhead.

“We have five ROVs working to intervene on the BOP and get it closed and if we are successful on that that could resolve the oil flow problem in a short period of time,” Grote said.

But the company has provided little detail as to what progress - if any - has been made to activate the rams inside the BOP.

Suttles said earlier that efforts will continue “until exhausted or successful,” but has cautioned that closing the BOP may not be possible.

“We don’t know the condition inside that blowout preventer,” Suttles explained. “We don’t know which technique will ultimately be successful. So what we’re doing is working all these techniques in parallel.”

“We know the quickest way is to stop it at the current BOP, but we also know that may not be successful, so that’s why we’re progressing up to two relief wells in planning and permitting.”

“We want to bring this to conclusion absolutely as fast as possible,” he added.

When asked earlier if Macondo is a high-pressure well, Suttles said Macondo was not considered to be “unusually high pressured” but he was unable to say what the exact pressure is since there is no way to monitor it.

'Underwater containment dome'

BP also is leading efforts to deploy a “collection system” with “three collection devices” and “nine different pieces of production equipment that can be used at the surface” to recover the leaking oil from the wellhead directly, Suttles said.

It is essentially a dome that would cover the leak, attached to a riser to allow BP to pump the oil-water mix to the surface.

The same system has been used in shallow water but never in the deep-water Gulf.

“The issue is to make certain it can withstand the pressure of the much deeper water at the side and to be able to sort out the various topsides processing issues,” Grote said.

“But presuming we can get all that squared away - and we are – this could be a solution in four weeks or less.”

'Investigation underway'

Regulators are in the early stages of investigating what caused the explosion and spill.

Landry earlier promised that a “thorough examination of the facts has been under way since the start of the incident” and that it is a “collaborative effort between MMS and the Coast Guard”.

She said the agencies are also working closely with BP, “the responsible party”.

MMS regional director Gulf of Mexico region Lars Herbst said his agency has been reviewing “all engineering aspects of safety” related to drilling and “inspection activities”.

“(Interior) Secretary (Ken) Salazar and (Homeland) Secretary (Janet) Napolitano will discuss any additional actions that we may take to address these issues,” Herbst said.

Herbst added that MMS inspectors fly offshore daily to inspect rigs and platforms. Regarding rigs, Herbst said MMS requires “operators” to test the blowout preventer systems “every 14 days”.

“MMS also audits well control training conducted by the operators and verifies that well control safety exercises are regularly conducted.”

'ExxonMobil rig shut down'

Herbst said rig owner Diamond Offshore evacuated its semisub rig Ocean Endeavor “in an abundance of caution” due to the sheen in the water in the area of the rig.

Ocean Endeavor was working on a well workover on the Mica field for ExxonMobil in Mississippi Canyon Block 211 when it was evacuated.

“The drilling rig will likely be moved off location and resume work at a later time,” Herbst said.

Diamond spokesman Les Van Dyke said he was not aware of any imminent plans to re-man the rig for relocation.

'Greens slam offshore drilling expansion'

A Greenpeace representative told UpstreamOnline that his organisation was especially concerned about the spill’s effect on bluefin tuna, which spawn in the northern Gulf, and sea turtles, which are making their way to Gulf coast beaches to spawn.

Three sperm whales were also spotted in the vicinity from the air but according to Henry they were not in the immediate area of the spill.

John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA said animals will avoid the slick “but with something this scale, a lot of marine life isn’t going to have the option.”

“The nature of marine food webs – once it is taken up by plankton and smaller fish it keeps circulating through the food chain,” he told UpstreamOnline.

“It is going to end up in the food we eat.”

Hocevar said the problems shutting the well and containing the spill in the Gulf, where there is a concentration of industry resources, shows why the US should not open drilling in more remote areas.

'Blowout'

The Macondo well - a discovery well which was to be temporarily abandoned ahead of later completion as a subsea producer - blew out late last Tuesday evening.

The well had been drilled to 18,000 feet when an explosion rocked the semisub before the rig was engulfed in flames.

The semisub sank on Thursday morning, extinguishing the blaze.

A senior Transocean executive, Adrian Rose, said the company had not begun to determine if the rig, which was found in 5000 feet of water Saturday, could be salvaged.

Transocean said yesterday the rig was insured for up to $560 million.

The initial cause of the accident is still unknown, although Rose earlier indicated it seems likely the well blew out.

“We don’t know what caused the accident,” he said. When asked if the incident involved a blowout, he replied: "Basically, yes."

'Lost are mourned'

Eleven of the 126 crew on board the Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion are missing, presumed dead.

Drilling giant Transocean has confirmed nine of its employees are among the missing. Two worked for services outfit Smith International and Schlumberger's M-I Swaco joint venture.

Transocean chief executive Steven Newman said: "As the nation and everyone in the Transocean family mourns the tragic loss of these people, our deepest sympathies are with their families and friends today.

"Transocean is doing everything we can to meet their needs during this difficult time, and our family response team members are in close contact to provide all necessary support,” he said.

He added: “ I would once again like to express our gratitude to the US Coast Guard, BP and everyone involved for their exhaustive search and rescue efforts, despite this very sad outcome."

BP chief executive Tony Hayward also offered his condolences on behalf of the supermajor to the families of the missing men.

“No words can express the sorrow and pain when such a tragic incident happens," he said.

“On behalf of all of us at BP, my deepest sympathies go out to the families and friends who have suffered such a terrible loss.

"Our thoughts also go out to their colleagues, especially those who are recovering from their injuries."

Hayward added: “BP will be working closely with Transocean and the authorities to find out exactly what happened so lessons can be learnt to prevent something like this from happening anywhere again.”

BP holds 65% of the Macondo prospect and operated the well. US independent Anadarko holds a 25% working interest and Japan's Mitsui holds the remaining 10%.

Coast Guard maps showing the extent of the spill and the location of the Deepwater Horizon, as well as an isometric view of the spill, are available in the related media below.

Updated Macondo spill

Isometric view

Deepwater Horizon location mapUpdated Macondo spill

NOAA oil spill movement chart.

The US Coast Guard has also made the following footage of firefighting efforts available:

Andy Williams, a colleague of the Deepwater Horizon's crew, made the following video tribute:

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