By STEPHEN WISNEFSKI
[0605oilA] Associated Press
A man walks past oil residue on the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has started washing ashore on the Alabama and Florida coast beaches.
BP PLC collected 6,077 barrels of oil on Friday, the first full day after a new containment cap was placed over the deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico that has been leaking for more than six weeks, the company said early Saturday on its website, noting that the rate should increase in the coming days.
The first daily estimate of oil collected indicates that possibly between half and one-third of the oil that is spewing from the BP-owned Macondo well is being captured. Last week, scientists led by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day were gushing into the Gulf, though some scientists have said the rate is likely considerably higher and the government team continues to evaluate the flow.
With a cap lowered over a runaway well, BP is beginning to capture some of the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, but residents are worried about oil hitting beaches. Video courtesy of Fox News.
"Optimization continues and improvement in oil collection is expected over the next several days," BP said in the update, noting that it had also collected 15.7 million standard cubic feet of natural gas that was flared.at the surface.
On Saturday, at the spill site, a flotilla of at least 10 vessels clustered around the Discoverer Enterprise, the 835 foot-long drillship that is collecting oil siphoned from the well through a newly insinslled riser. Next to the drillship, a giant flame could be seen from a U.S. Coast Guard airplane—millions of cubic feet of natural gas being flared. Swaths of brown oil surrounded the fleet.
U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the federal response to the oil spill, said at a news conference in Theodore, Ala., that technicians are working to increase the production rate but are doing so in a manner that won't allow for the introduction of hydrates into the containment cap. Hydrates, which are ice-like crystals that form when frigid seawater combines with natural-gas molecules, derailed a separate containment effort that BP attempted last month.
The containment device that is now in place has four vents to help prevent hydrate buildup, though these also allow oil and natural gas to escape. Technicians had hoped to close the vents on Friday to boost the capture rate, but Adm. Allen said they remained open as of Saturday morning.
"They're going to remain open until they can stabilize the pressure and the rate of production," Adm. Allen said at Saturday's briefing. "They're making adjustments to the system and making sure they don't increase the production rate until it's safe to do so."
He said the goal is to take as much pressure coming from the well as possible and put it into production, but that it's essential to stabilize the pressure.
Chocolate-brown tar balls were washing ashore Pensacola Beach in Florida. Video courtesy of Fox News.
"Once you've optimized that pressure, there's a ... smaller chance that whatever oil that cannot be accommodated up to that pipe for production will go down and out those rubber seals [on the cap]," he said. "That will be the final, what I would call residual, leakage we're going to have to manage over the long term."
Adm. Allen said that any oil that continues to leak at the source would be treated with subsea chemical dispersants. He added that officials are doing all they can to limit the use of dispersants at the surface, as much more has been used than could have been originally envisioned. Scientists have raised serious concerns about the potential long-term effects that dispersants could have on marine life.
BP placed the containment cap over the leaking well late Thursday after severing the pipe that lies a mile beneath the water's surface. The company wasn't able to get as smooth of a cut as it had originally hoped for, which means that it hasn't been able to get as tight a seal as needed to keep oil from leaking.
The Macondo well has been spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons a day of oil since the explosion on April 20 and sinking two days later of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig owned by Transocean Ltd. The disaster is threatening to cause devastating ecolological and economic harm to a wide area of the U.S. Gulf Coast.
BP and the U.S. government have come under withering criticism as repeated attempts to stop or contain the oil spill, which is now among the biggest in history, have failed. BP, which has seen its share price fall nearly 40% since the rig exploded, has already spent more than $1 billion on its response efforts and faces a raft of litigation, as well as a federal criminal probe into the incident. The Obama administration has said it will hold BP and other responsible parties accountable and has also taken steps to restrict offshore drilling.
This computer image released shows that oil leaking from a damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico could wind up on the East Coast and even get carried on currents across the Atlantic Ocean.
BP has stumbled frequently in its efforts to contain the spill. Last weekend it suspended a much-vaunted procedure known as "top kill," which was designed to plug the well. As the company proceeds with its containment efforts, it is also drilling two relief wells that are seen as the ultimate solution to stopping the leak but won't be ready until August.
"The long-term threat of this well will not go away until the relief well has been drilled, pressure has been taken off and the well has been plugged," Adm. Allen said Saturday. "In the meantime, we have to optimize our containment efforts."
He said the worst-case scenario now is that the oil discharge related to what can't be contained continues until the relief wells are drilled in early August.
Questions remain about how much oil is flowing from the well, especially since government officials over the past week said that the latest containment effort could increase the rate by about 20%, at least temporarily.
Adm. Allen said that the government's flow-rate technical group continues to study the matter, and that production numbers from the Macondo well in coming days will help add clarity.
"Hopefully we'll start moving those ranges into a more acceptable representation of what's actually flowing, and the best way to do that is to get a good flow rate of production because once you know what you are producing every day, that's a known quantity you can take off the table," he said.
Meantime, he noted that winds continued pushing the northern edge of the spill closer to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and oil is increasingly washing up on shores.
Tar balls have started washing up on the Florida Panhandle in recent days, threatening the area's reputation for clean beaches and emerald-tinted waters. Even as a sign welcomed tourists to Pensacola Beach with the boast "World's Whitest Beaches," cleanup teams have been deployed to scour 18 miles of shoreline in Escambia County.
Tar Reaches the Florida Coast
Escambia County officials in Florida said Saturday that the primary oil plume is two miles from Pensacola Beach, and that a light sheen, three miles wide, is slightly more than a half mile from the same beach.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Barack Obama, who on Friday made his third visit to the Gulf Coast since the crisis began, asked Americans to support the Gulf Coast by visiting the area's beaches, many of which remain unaffected.
"We will continue to leverage every resource at our disposal to protect coastlines, to clean up the oil, to hold BP and other companies accountable for damages, to begin to restore the bounty and beauty of this region—and to aid the hardworking people of the Gulf as they rebuild their businesses and communities," he said.