Deepwater Horizon Slick: Coast Guard Will Try Burning

Earlier today the New York Times (NYT) reported that Coast Guard crews will attempt to burn some of the oil. For the article please see below or check out the article on the NYT’s website.

Coast Guard Will Try Burning Oil Spill as It Nears

By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and LESLIE KAUFMAN

Published: April 28, 2010

NEW ORLEANS — Crews struggling to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will light some of the petroleum on fire at 11 a.m. Central time in an attempt to burn it off before it reaches shore.

A Coast Guard spokesman said on Wednesday that crews would begin with an initial burn in a confined area of the spill to determine the density of the oil.

According to a statement released by the group of industry and government officials supervising the burn, the oil will be consolidated “into a fire resistant boom approximately 500 feet long; this oil will then be towed to a more remote area, where it will be ignited and burned in a controlled manner.”

From there, officials will conduct “small, controlled burns of several thousand gallons of oil lasting approximately one hour each.”

“The big things that we have to pay attention to are the sea conditions,” Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Steven Carleton said. “Solid oil obviously has the ability to burn, but it doesn’t burn the same way that gasoline does.”

Officials turned to the burning option when the slick of oil, released when a drilling rig caught fire 50 miles offshore and sank last week, drifted to within 23 miles of the ecologically fragile Louisiana coastline on Tuesday.

Tony Hayward, chief executive of British Petroleum, which leased the rig, known as Deepwater Horizon, described slick the spilled oil as very light, like “iced tea,” and only one-tenth of a millimeter thick, as thin as a human hair.

“We will be judged primarily on the strength of our response,” said Mr. Hayward, who was in Southwest Louisiana to supervise the burn.

A joint government and industry task force had been unable to stop crude oil from streaming out of a broken pipe attached to a well that the rig had been drilling nearly a mile below sea level. The leaks in the pipe, which were found on Saturday, are releasing about 42,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico southeast of Venice, La.

Officials said on Tuesday that wind projections indicated that the oil would not reach land in the next three days, and it was unclear exactly where along the Gulf Coast it might arrive first.

“If some of the weather conditions continue, the Delta area is at risk,” said Charlie Henry, scientific support coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry noted that the coastal area near the spill contains some 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands and is the spawning ground for countless fish and birds.

Controlled burns have been done and tested before, Admiral Landry said, and had been shown to be “effective in burning 50 to 95 percent of oil collected in a fire boom.” The main disadvantage, she said, was a “black plume” of smoke from the burn that would put soot and other particulate pollutants into the air.

Other short-term efforts to control the oil have so far been unsuccessful, and the political pressure has intensified.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said they were expanding the government’s investigation of the explosion that caused the oil rig disaster. The inquiry will have subpoena power and will look into possible criminal or civil violations by the operators of the drilling rig — Transocean, a Swiss company — and by related companies.

Administration officials also met Tuesday with top executives of BP, which is required by law to pay for the cleanup. Last fall, as the federal government was weighing tougher safety and environmental rules for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, BP objected, saying its voluntary programs were successful.

BP engineers have failed so far to activate a device known as a blowout preventer, a valve at the wellhead that is meant to stop oil flow in an emergency, and is the only short-term solution for capping the well.

Doug Suttles, the chief operating officer for exploration and production at BP, defended the company’s efforts, and said the cleanup was costing $6 million a day. He said engineers had not given up on engaging the valve and were exploring other possibilities as well.

Mr. Suttles said that a plan to use a type of tent or dome to collect the oil was progressing, and was two to four weeks from being operational. On Tuesday, the company received permits to drill a relief well, which would be started half a mile from the current well site. Crews plan to drill toward the current well and then inject it with heavy fluids and concrete to seal it. That solution is experimental at this depth, however, and is months away.

Coast Guard officials said they were not expecting landfall for the spill in the next three days. But Doug Helton, the incident operations coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s emergency response division, said winds would change Wednesday and start pushing the spill north and west toward the Mississippi Delta. “It is going to land eventually,” Mr. Helton said.

The prospect alarmed fisherman and ecologists along the Louisiana coast. Gov. Bobby Jindal requested that the Coast Guard set up protective booms around several wildlife refuges in the Delta.

Those delicate coastal rookeries and estuaries factor into the consideration for the surface burn. Such a burn would most likely ease the impact on wildlife.

The oceanic agency issued a guide to the burn that advised as follows:

“Based on our limited experience, birds and mammals are more capable of handling the risk of a local fire and temporary smoke plume than of handling the risk posed by a spreading oil slick. Birds flying in the plume can become disoriented, and could suffer toxic effects. This risk, however, is minimal when compared to oil coating and ingestion.”

A burn does not get rid of the oil entirely. It leaves waxy residue that can either be skimmed from the surface or sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Liz Robbins contributed reporting from New York.

-Kaiti

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