NEW ORLEANS – The Coast Guard discovered Saturday that oil is leaking from the damaged well that fed a massive rig that exploded last week off Louisiana’s coast, while bad weather halted efforts to clean up the mess that threatens the area’s fragile marine ecosystem.
For days, the Coast Guard has said no oil appeared to be escaping from the well head on the ocean floor. Rear Adm. Mary Landry said the leak was a new discovery but could have begun when the rig sank on Thursday, two days after the initial explosion.
“We thought what we were dealing with as of yesterday was a surface residual (oil) from the mobile offshore drilling unit,” Landry said. “In addition to that is oil emanating from the well. It is a big change from yesterday. … This is a very serious spill, absolutely.”
Coast Guard and company officials estimate that as much as 1,000 barrels – or 42,000 gallons – of oil is leaking each day after studying information from remotely operated vehicles and the size of the oil slick surrounding the blast site. The rainbow-colored sheen of oil stretched 20 miles by 20 miles on Saturday – about 25 times larger than it appeared to be a day earlier, Landry said.
By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 – the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
BP PLC, which leased the rig and is taking the lead in the clean-up, and the government have been using remotely operated vehicles to try to stop the leak by closing valves on the well deep underwater. If that doesn’t work, the company could drill what’s called an intervention well to control the oil flow. But the intervention drilling could take months.
“Over the next several days, we should determine which method is the best one to follow,” said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production.
Complicating efforts to stop the leak is the well head’s depth at 5,000 feet underwater, said Lars Herbst, the regional director for the federal Minerals Management Service. Leaks have been fixed at similar depths before, but the process is difficult, he said.
The bad weather rolled in Friday, bringing with it strong wind, clouds and rain that interrupted efforts to contain the oil spill.
The sunken rig may have as much as 700,000 gallons of diesel on board, and an undetermined amount of oil has spilled from the rig itself. Suttles said the rig was “intact and secure” on the seabed about 1,300 feet from the well site.
BP said it has activated an extensive oil spill response, including the remotely operated vehicles, 700 workers, four airplanes and 32 vessels to mop up the spill.
The Marine Spill Response Corp., an energy industry cleanup consortium, also brought equipment.