No end in sight as huge US oil spill veers west


BP Plc (BP.L) was considering its next move on Monday after its most promising short-term remedy for a massive undersea oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico struck a snag over the weekend, fueling fears of a prolonged and growing environmental and economic disaster.

The failed containment efforts and an unfavorable turn in the weather suggest the three-week-old crisis could be dialed up a few notches.

The uncontrolled spill, which could become the worst in U.S. history, is expected to drift farther west, away from Florida’s popular beaches but into the important shipping channels and rich seafood areas off the central Louisiana coast, west of the Mississippi Delta.

The environmental group Greenpeace issued an unconfirmed report late on Sunday that traces of oil had been found onshore at Port Eads, the southernmost point of Louisiana, which is accessible only by boat or helicopter.

At least 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) of oil a day have been gushing unchecked into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, rupturing the well and killing 11 crew members.

The spill threatens economic and ecological disaster on Gulf Coast tourist beaches, wildlife refuges and fishing grounds across four states. It has forced President Barack Obama to rethink plans to open more waters to drilling.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that, with brisk onshore winds expected from the southeast, the points of potential contact of the spill with the mainland will multiply between now and Wednesday.

The two Louisiana parishes directly west of the delta declared states of emergency on Sunday in anticipation of a battle to keep oil from coming ashore. Additional staging areas for the spill response have been set up in that area.

Tourism and fishing have become the first victims of the oil spill crisis.

Fishing is suspended in parts of the Gulf waters and much of the Louisiana coast. Many tourists have been scared away by reports of reddish, putrid water offshore, even though the coast is currently unaffected.

“You wait all year for your vacation — you don’t want to spend it in what you perceive is going to be a cesspool,” said Gary Bratt, owner of a company that rents beach equipment on Alabama’s Dauphin Island.

BP is exploring several new options to control the spill after its 98-ton containment chamber, which took about two weeks to build, encountered problems on Saturday.

A buildup of crystallized gas in the dome forced engineers to delay efforts to place the huge containment device over the rupture and funnel leaking oil to a waiting drillship.

“We’re gathering some data to help us with two things. One is another way to do containment, the second is other ways to actually stop the flow,” BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told Reuters in Venice, Louisiana.

CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS

Top officials from BP and some of the other companies associated with the ruined Deepwater Horizon drilling platform are expected to get a grilling at congressional hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Minerals Management Service also plan an investigation into the drilling rig’s sinking, starting in Kenner, Louisiana, on Tuesday.

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward told London’s Sunday Telegraph it could be weeks or even months before the spill is brought under control. He said the company could spend $10 million a day on cleanup efforts. [ID:nLDE64807W] [ID:nLDE64807W]

Efforts to close valves on a failed blowout protector have also been scrapped. Conducting operations a mile (1.6 km) below the ocean’s surface are complicating relief efforts as engineers work with remote-controlled vehicles in the inky blackness of “inner space.

BP’s value has been savaged by investors since the crisis erupted. BP shares in London closed on Friday about 15 percent below their April 20 close.

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