Well capped, but oil 'missing'

2010-07-27 12:30

New Orleans - With BP's leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico finally capped, the focus shifts to the surface clean-up and the question on everyone's lips is: Where is all the oil?

For three long months, a massive slick threatened the shorelines of Louisiana and other southern US Gulf Coast states as BP tried everything from top hats to junk shots and giant domes to stanch the toxic sludge.

A cap stopped the flow on July 15 and now, thanks to frantic efforts to skim and burn the crude on the surface, the real difficulty is finding the oil rather than cleaning it up.

Some 150 reconnaissance planes fly constant sorties from Florida to Texas noting any oil sightings, while flat-bottomed boats trawl the marshes for lumps of tar too large to biodegrade.

"What we have is an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil and the challenge is to find out where they are at right now because they are widely dispersed," said US spill chief Thad Allen.


Pressed further on the patches, Allen relented: "Maybe patches is a misnomer on my part. What we're seeing are mats, patties, small concentrations, very hard to detect, but they're out there.

"What we're trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it."

The figures speak for themselves. Before the cap went on, some 25 000 barrels of oil a day were being skimmed from the thickest part of the slick near the well site.

By the time tropical storm Bonnie arrived last week, the take was down to a pitiful 56 barrels, begging the question of what to do with the fleet of 800 skimmers, many of them run by disgruntled fishermen.

Allen said he was already looking at trying to redeploy the so-called Vessels of Opportunity in surveillance and testing programmes and was meeting local leaders on Thursday to discuss options.

As to where all the oil that hasn't been skimmed or burned off has gone, opinions vary: some experts say it has been broken down naturally by the elements and by microbes in the ocean, others fear it could be lingering undetected in underwater plumes.

Only weeks ago, the slick was an unstoppable force that couldn't be prevented from swamping shorelines and slowly choking helpless pelicans, now the oil is an elusive enemy, one that has to be tracked down.


The latest "Nearshore Surface Oil Forecast" from the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicated only seven sizeable patches of surface oil, all light sheen.

An over flight on Sunday identified one thicker patch of emulsified crude: a flotilla of skimmers was immediately dispatched and made short work of mopping it up.

Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, a government on-scene co-ordinator, is stationing vessels at the many inlets that run into Louisiana's precious marshes to ward off the arrival of any toxic sludge, what he calls his "fire department".

"In the event we do see any oil approaching... we're right there waiting for it, ready to attack it and get it before it really gets into those marshlands," he said.

With hopes high the well will be sealed for good next week, Allen was conscious of the need to plan for the next phase, admitting: "We are going to have to figure out how we make a transition in our resources."

Sophisticated underwater operations involving fleets of robotic submarines at brain-crunching depths will make way for the less glamorous but equally complex work of Shoreline Clean-up Assessment Teams, Scats for short.

"They will sign off literally mile by mile where we've had oil impact," said Zukunft. "And that is the very long phase of this operation where you ultimately determine how clean is clean."

Upbeat assessment

Approximately 1 025km of Gulf Coast is officially listed as "oiled", 582km in Louisiana, 175km in Mississippi, 112km in Alabama, and 154km in Florida.

The beaches should be relatively painless to mop up, but cleaning up the maze of marshes, where there's nothing to stand on and shallow-bottomed boats are needed to navigated the narrow channels, is a logistical nightmare.

Geologist Ed Owens, a world authority on protecting shorelines from oil spills contracted by BP to lend his expertise to the response effort, gave an upbeat assessment on Monday, saying the marshes should recover in a matter of months as only a "tiny fraction" of oil had infiltrated them.

Other leading scientists though have warned of a decades-long effect on marine life that could lead to a shift in the overall biological network in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • Melissa - 2010-07-27 13:11

    I hope BP goes bankrupt. They have caused a lot of environmental damage not to even mention the deaths of so many animals. They are arrogant and selfish and have absolutely no care for the world and nature around them. The wheel will turn for BP and they will get what they deserve

  • mk - 2010-07-27 13:12

    "... where is all the oil at ...", hopefully his cleanup skills are better than his grammar.

  • TurboChris - 2010-07-27 13:33

    The BP oil spill is such a huge story yet it was not very well covered in the press, for the magnitude of the disaster this should have been front cover and not just a side story. I wonder how long will the eco system take to recover, the damage to nature is shameful, BP and the company running the oil rig must really hang their heads in shame, I will not put BP in my car anymore!

  • @meliisa - 2010-07-27 13:47

    How can you be so narrow minded. Are you not happy that they eventually stopped the leak? What about the implications if all those people that are working for them, lose their jobs? Think with your head ab=nd not with your heart!

  • Dale - 2010-07-27 13:47

    Not to be rude, but it's actually funny to see how activists are going on about "death to bp and no to oil". I don't think any of you understand the need for oil. What are you going to do without oil? Run on electricity? Well where do you think Electricity comes from, fossil fuels! Not to mention some of your favourite products such as Vaseline, Tar for the roads, Plastic containers, Blitz, Candles, etc.

    Wake up, the world needs oil there simply is just no alternative to this great natural product. Yes the oil spill was an accident but we need to clean it up and move on our world depends on oil to run.

  • ono - 2010-07-27 13:59

    Well slowloy the truth is coming out. There is not that much oil actually spilt out there

  • @Melissa - 2010-07-27 14:00

    If it wasn't BP it would have been one of the other big oil companies...

  • Michael - 2010-07-27 14:01

    I will from now ONLY use BP. Who cares about USA anyways....

  • DocWalker - 2010-07-27 14:06

    @Melissa - BP has 97000 employees. People who are husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and whose income pays for their homes, food, kids' schools, etc. Are you really wishing them all out of their jobs? BP should be held accountable for sure but your comment is non-sensical.

  • dk - 2010-07-27 14:18

    Makes you wonder if the entire so-called "threat to the environment" was not blown out of proportion in the first place...

  • VP - 2010-07-27 15:02

    It propably would not have happend to one of the other oil companies as they have much more stringent rules in place, in the last 12 months BP have had 100's of smaller recordable incidents as compared to the other oil companies (I work for one of them). If BP do go bankrupt the company and its assets will get bought by one of the other oil giants and most of the ex BP employees will keep their jobs.

  • Louis III@Melissa - 2010-07-27 15:04

    Does your car run on water Mellsa? Didn't think so. See how many of the Greenpeace protestors arrived in cars? Ag shame. The bliss of ignorance.

  • Supporting Melissa - 2010-07-27 17:15

    BP could have stopped it much sooner, but they tried to do so in a manner that they still could use the well.
    They did not care about the environmental impact. now they going to start drilling of the Libyan coast ... Hope they get robbed by Somali pirates...

  • Doby - 2010-08-17 17:21

    I bet the ajority of people going of on BP are driving gasguzzeling SUV's , if there is not a market for oil BP wont drll for it , we only have ourselfs to blame , the way we are going on human society will be extinct because of their actions in a few hundred years

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