After Gulf Coast oil spill, scientists envision devastation for region

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A01

The urgent question along the polluted Gulf of Mexico: How bad will this get?

No one knows, but with each day that the leaking oil well a mile below the surface remains uncapped, scientists and energy industry observers are imagining outcomes that range from bad to worse to worst, with some forecasting a calamity of historic proportions. Executives from oil giant BP and other energy companies, meanwhile, shared their own worst-case scenario in a Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers, saying that if they fail to close the well,the spill could increase from an estimated 5,000 barrels a day to 40,000 barrels or possibly even 60,000 barrels.

Three scientists in separate interviews Tuesday said the gulf's "loop current," a powerful conveyor belt that extends about 3,000 feet deep, will almost surely take the oil down through the eastern gulf to the Straits of Florida, a week-long trip, roughly. The oil would then hang a sharp left, riding the Florida Current past the Keys and north again, directly into the Gulf Stream, which could carry it within spitting distance of Palm Beach and up the East Coast to Cape Hatteras, N.C.

For the moment, the oil flowing from the blown-out well in what the industry calls Mississippi Canyon Block 252 is still many miles north of the loop current. A three-day forecast by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration does not show the oil and the current crossing paths. But Robert Weisberg, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida who has been monitoring the situation, said a new filament of the current is reaching toward the oil slick.

"The loop current is actually going to the oil, versus the oil going to the loop current," Weisberg said.

The crisis in the gulf is shot through with guesses, rough estimates and murky figures. Whether the oil blows onshore depends on fickle winds. This oil slick has been elusive and enigmatic, lurking off the coast of Louisiana for many days as if choosing its moment of attack. It has changed sizes: In rough, churning seas, the visible slick at the surface has shrunk in recent days.

The oil by its nature is hard to peg. It's not a single, coherent blob but rather an irregular, amoeba-shaped expanse that in some places forms a thin sheen on the water and in other locations is braided and stretched into tendrils of thick, orange-brown gunk. There may be a large plume of oil in the water column, unseen.

A BP executive said the company has had success in treating the oil at the point of the leak with dispersant chemicals sprayed by a robotic submarine. A federal fleet has fought high waves in attempts to skim or burn the oil. Rough weather has actually been a blessing, said Ian MacDonald, an oceanography professor at Florida State University. In heavy surf, the oil has been breaking up, and toxic, volatile substances have been evaporating.

"It chews up the oil; some of it sinks," MacDonald said.

The good news ends there.

"What remains forms what's called mousse, which is like chocolate mousse. It's an emulsion, which is an emulsion of oil, air and water, in a thick, gelatinous layer, and that's nasty stuff," MacDonald said.

No one is sure how much oil is spilling. An early estimate by the Coast Guard of a 1,000-barrel-a-day flow was upped to 5,000 barrels with the discovery of an additional leak, but officials now caution against giving any estimate too much credence.

The oil so far has barely touched coastal islands and hasn't come ashore, but environmentalists are poised for a catastrophic impact that could last decades.

"It's going to have a ripple effect throughout the entire food chain, from the plankton to the fish that consume them, to the predators, like the pelicans and the dolphins," said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. "It's like a slow-moving train wreck about which you can do nothing, or very little."

At a news conference Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said he had asked federal officials to look for ways to increase the Mississippi River's flow to keep the slick at bay.

"Let's make no mistake about what's at stake here," he said. "This is our very way of life."

The crisis began April 20 with an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon, a huge rig owned by Transocean and leased by BP. The South Korean-built rig, insured for $560 million, sank two days later; the riser, the pipe leading to the rig, collapsed. Three leaks have developed, the largest at the end of the drill pipe that extends from the end of the riser.

Robotic submarines have tried to activate a structure called a blowout preventer that sits atop the wellhead and has multiple tools for clamping the flow of oil in an emergency. So far those efforts have failed.

"It's really, really devastating," said Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas. "On the political front, are we going to be allowed to drill in the deep water again? That's going to be more devastating to society than to the industry. We're going to have much higher oil prices because of that."

Few people have a more apocalyptic view than Matt Simmons, retired chairman of the energy investment banking firm Simmons & Company International and a 41-year veteran of the industry. Simmons, who will speak at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston this week, has been famous in recent years for warning that the industry is running out of oil. Now he sees a disaster on an epic scale as the pressurized subterranean reservoir known as the Macondo field, tapped for the first time by Deepwater Horizon, continues to vent into the gulf.

"It really is a catastrophe," Simmons said. "I don't think they're going to be able to put the leak out until the reservoir depletes. It's just too technically challenging."

He said BP's cleanup costs could ruin the company.

"They're going to have to clean up the Gulf of Mexico," he said.

Jindal's news conference Tuesday opened with an invocation from Randy Craighead, the pastor of a New Orleans area church. He asked for divine intervention.

"Father, we pray for a prevailing north wind," he said, "to drive that oil slick southward."

Staff writer David Fahrenthold in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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