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

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A01

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.

BP said Wednesday that it has continued to try, in vain, to use submarine robotic vehicles to activate a malfunctioning blowout-preventer at the site of the well. Hayward said federal inquiries into the cause of the accident would have to focus on Transocean's preventer, which he called the "failsafe mechanism of the industry" and which he said had been inspected just 10 days earlier. On Wednesday night, the company said it had identified a third leak in a pipe from the well.

The London-based Hayward was in Louisiana on Wednesday looking at progress in fabricating a 100-ton steel dome the company hopes to lower over the oil leak. The dome could be ready by the weekend, but it would take two to four weeks to put it in place, if that can be done at all. The dome would funnel oil, natural gas and seawater into a pipe leading to a floating processing and storage facility. The technique has been used in shallow waters around 350 feet deep, Hayward said in a telephone interview, but the current spill is leaking from pipes lying 5,000 feet deep.

Hayward also said that BP will begin drilling a new well to intercept the leaking one by Friday, but that it will take weeks for that strategy to stem the flow of oil.

Headed for the coast

With that timetable looming, attention was turning to coastlines. Compared with the Santa Barbara and Valdez spills, this one took place farther from land, giving the Coast Guard and companies time to respond. Government agencies and BP have set up 100,000 feet of booms to protect sensitive coastal areas. BP has also hired a firm that specializes in rescuing birds. NOAA said its 72-hour forecast for the spill showed it touching land for the first time this weekend.

BP and the Coast Guard are also using chemicals to disperse the oil, which for the most part is spread in a thin sheen. But the area of the sheen has expanded to more than 150 miles long and about 30 miles wide.

"It's fair to say both the use of dispersants and the burn strategy are necessary evils," said Jacqueline Savitz, a marine expert at Oceana, an environmental group. "They are better than doing nothing. But it's a no-win situation. . . . The best option is prevention, and it's too late for that."

The spill has also made waves in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist, who is expected to leave the Republican Party and run for U.S. Senate as an independent, flew over the spill Tuesday and said it made him reconsider his support for drilling off Florida's coast. "It's clearly not clean enough after we saw what we saw today -- that's horrific -- and it certainly isn't safe enough. It's the opposite of safe," he said, according to Florida news reports.

A BP official said controlled burns can get rid of 50 to 99 percent of oil within a limited area, but Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley who worked on controlling the damage of the Santa Barbara spill, warned that in open seas, companies have generally captured less than 10 percent of oil spilled.

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