Oil spill burned in Gulf of Mexico, in hope of saving coast

Crews have begun setting fire to oil leaking from the site of an exploded drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a last-ditch effort to get rid of it before it reaches environmentally sensitive marshlands on the coast.
Map locates extent of oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Coast Guard and BP set fire to a portion of the crude oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday in a bid to limit the impact of a widening slick, which federal officials said could touch shore in parts of the Louisiana delta as early as Friday evening.

With BP unable to stop the flow of oil from a deepwater exploration well that blew up last week, attention was turning to the gulf's coastlines, where the spill could threaten wildlife, tourism and the livelihoods of fishermen.

"It's premature to say this is catastrophic," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry. "I will say that this is very serious."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated Wednesday night that oil could be pouring out of the ground at a rate of up to 5,000 barrels a day. That is five times BP's earlier estimate.

Government officials said Wednesday they had urged BP to seek additional help from the Defense Department in protecting the shoreline. President Obama was briefed Wednesday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the situation.

Earlier, the Coast Guard said the company corralled the thickest areas of the oil slick inside fireproof booms, lighted it late in the afternoon and burned it for 28 minutes. By burning off several thousand gallons of oil, the Coast Guard said, it could limit damage to coastal areas.

The unusual strategy has been used for damaged tankers in World War II, in an oil spill off Britain and in rare cases on inland waters in Louisiana and Texas. But a burn off U.S. shores and the prospect of oil landing on the gulf coastline could become powerful symbols of the perils of offshore drilling, just as President Obama and Congress appear set to open new areas to offshore oil and gas exploration.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration said it will open federal waters to wind farms, approving a divisive offshore project near Cape Cod in Massachusetts -- and providing a juxtaposition of controversies over both old and new energy sources.

The crisis in the gulf is likely to get worse before it gets better. It began April 20, when an oil and gas discovery blew upward, setting the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on fire. The rig, owned by Transocean and leased to BP, later sank, and 11 of its workers are missing and presumed dead.

At its current rate, the spill could surpass by next week the size of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill that helped lead to the far-reaching moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, a ban that Obama recently said he wants to modify. It would take about 260 days for this incident to exceed the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska, but it took several weeks for a similar oil well blowout to be brought under control off the coast of Australia last year.

BP's response

Asked about the potential political effects of the spill, BP chief executive Tony Hayward said: "It's far too early to tell. I think a lot of it will be determined by the intensity of the response, the quality of the response and the success of the response." He said BP is trying to be "very forward-leaning. We have enormous resources committed to contain it."

In recent years, BP has been plagued with other troubles, such as an explosion at a Texas refinery, construction delays on a gulf production platform and leaks in one of its Alaska pipelines.

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