Last week’s oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has created a catastrophic oil spill. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the sunken Deepwater Horizon oil rig is now leaking an average of a 42,000 gallons of crude oil per day. BP, which leased Deepwater Horizon from Transocean LTD, is working to clean up the mess, which poses a major threat to the fragile Gulf ecosystem.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion now ranks among the worst offshore drilling disasters in recent U.S. history. Eleven workers who were unaccounted for after last Tuesday’s blast are still missing. The search for those workers has been called off, and they are presumed dead. The fatalities make this the deadliest U.S. offshore rig explosion since 1968.
As of Sunday, the oil spill encompassed an area of about 600 square miles, and was situated just 30 miles off of the U.S. Gulf Coast. It is expected the slick will remain away from the U.S. mainland for the next three days, but Gulf Coast states are being warned to take precautions. To be safe, Louisiana is erecting containment booms around some environmentally sensitive coastal areas.
According to a report on CNN.com, crews discovered Saturday that the sunken rig was leaking from two places. Bad weather hampered cleanup efforts on Saturday. As of Sunday, 1,143 barrels, or 48,000 gallons, of oily water have been collected, officials said.
Under federal law, BP is responsible for cleanup of the spill. On Sunday, crews began using remote-controlled vehicles to try to activate the rigs blowout preventer, which sits 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The blowout preventer is a 450 ton valve which can seal off the well. According to The New York times, the valve is meant to prevent sudden pressure releases that possibly led to the explosion on the oil rig last Tuesday.
If the operation is successful, the leaks could be sealed off in 24 to 36 hours. But the chief operating officer for exploration and production at BP told the Times that the operation was “highly complex”, and success could not be guaranteed.
BP is also mobilizing two rigs that could drill relief wells to try to contain the spill, but that could take up to three months to stop the flow, The New York Times said. A relief well would send heavy mud and concrete into the cavity of oil and gas that drilling apparently punctured by accident.
The Times also reported that if the blowout preventer seal does not work, officials intend to place a large dome directly over the leaks to catch the oil and route it up to the surface. Unfortunately, that method of containment has only been used in shallow water, so it is not clear that it would be successful in this case.
The longer oil is allowed to spill, the more serious environmental consequences could be. An official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Times that there had been no reports of dead animals yet, but that will change if the spill continues much longer. While the Gulf Coast appears safe for the next 72 hours, the slick is moving north, and the risk that it will reach the area will increase if the leak is not stopped soon.
Eggs, which cannot move away from the spill, are most at risk, the Times said. The Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts serve as nurseries for fish and shrimp, which means commercial fishing and shrimping could be severely impacted.