Arrival of hurricane season in Gulf of Mexico adds new fears over continuing Deepwater Horizon oil spill

US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley.

Publish date: May 31, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – The 2010 Hurricane season, which is predicted by meteorologists to be “active or extremely active” has arrived in the Gulf of Mexico where BP is still struggling amid myriad failures to stem the flow of oil from its leak that is now in its 42nd day.

Already, a tropical storm had ravages Ecuador over the weekend, killing 12, and sending shockwaves across the Gulf of Mexico that forecasts for a grueling storm season are on the money.

As oil from the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico starts to show up in its inland waterways, June 1, the beginning of Hurricane Season adds another woe to Louisiana’s long list of desperation as BP’s announcement that it’s top kill method to pump drill mud and other debris into the well’s damaged blowout protector were halted as a failure on Saturday. Hurricane season ends on Nov. 1

US President Barack Obama is Tuesday scheduled to meet with the co-chairs of an independent commission he set up to investigate the oil spill, which began on April 22 after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which BP had leased, exploded and sank.

Attorney General Eric Holder was headed to the Gulf to meet with his state counterparts in the region as part of a White House initiative to distance itself from BP and its numerous failures to stop its runaway well.

On Monday, BP began a last ditch “lower marine riser package cap,” project, which involves cutting off the failed, leaking riser at the top of the Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) on the blowout preventer and capping it with a valve that will be attached to a hose that is hoped to siphon off some of the oil onto a tanker on the surface. The procedure is expected to take some 5 days to complete, BP said.

If hurricanes brings strong winds and high waves to the Gulf, “the [tanker] would not be able to remain there, which means there would be unabated flow,” Carol Browner, the White House adviser on energy and climate change, told reporters Tuesday.

That, or failure of the new containment procedures, would be the worst-case scenario and “deeply, deeply troubling,” she said.

“If it is not able to contain the oil, we would be in a situation where it is conceivable that there would be oil leaking at a rate of something on the order of  500,000 to  850 gallons )1.9 million to 3.2 million litres) a day until the relief wells are dug,” Browner said.

The two relief wells would intersect the leaking well and allow BP to pump a heavy liquid into it to stem the flow of oil.

More oil into the gulf and marshlands

While the LMRP procedure is underway, it will increase the flow of oil into the Gulf by some 20 percent, adding to the 19,000 gallons that have already been spilled since April 20 when the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 50 miles off Louisiana’ coast, killing 11.

Over the weekend, Browner said that, even with the new LMPR efforts, oil will continue to leak until relief well are drilled – a process that will take until August.

Five years after it was battered by hurricane Katrina, the Gulf of Mexico is bracing for what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has predicted will be a highly active hurricane season, with three to seven “major” hurricanes.

The fear here is that a hurricane will push oil from the spill up the Mississippi delta and deep into Louisiana’s fragile wetlands and bayous.

Already, marshland has been swamped with thick black crude and reddish, sponge-like clumps that one scientist thought was oil mixed with dispersant.

Oil sightings were reported Monday in Grand Bayou Blue and Little Lake, both prized inland sites for fishing speckled trout, Ageny France Presse reported.

Federal agencies and scientists divided on hurricane risk

As Louisianans fretted over what a hurricane might bring, the companies and US government agencies responding to the spill tried to put a positive spin on the start of storm season.

“The high winds and seas will mix and ‘weather’ the oil which can help accelerate the biodegradation process,” they said on the Deepwater Horizon Response website.

They acknowledged that high winds “may distribute oil over a wider area.

“But it is difficult to model exactly where the oil may be transported,” they said, adding that, “movement of oil would depend greatly on the track of the hurricane.”

Rick Knabb, hurricane expert and tropical program manager for America’s foremost meteorological broadcasting service, The Weather Channel, said, however, that oil may play little role in the development of tropical storms and hurricanes.

“It is far more likely that a hurricane or tropical storm would have some effect on the oil, probably not the other way around, “ he said. “The tropical storms and hurricanes are going to do what they’re going to do. The presence of oil in the Gulf of Mexico is going to have minimal or no effect on the storms themselves.”

Natonal Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) head Jane Lubchenco told reporters that, “If there is a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, and if it makes landfall someplace on the Gulf Coast, it is possible that some of the oil that’s on the surface might be transported through the storm surge on the coastal area as high as the storm surge goes.”

But differentiating what oil could come from the spill itself, and what oil could be washed ashore by marine vessels would be difficult, said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA.

“The challenge we’re going to have is that we may not be able to differentiate what’s coming from the overturned boats, the farm pesticides and everything else that gets churned up in the wave action,” he told the Sun Herald.

“The hurricane would add turbulence and would spread the oil out,” said Mike Brown, a meteorology instructor at Mississippi State University. “The concentrations wouldn’t be as high, but there would be a larger area of oil. And if the oil is in the right spot compared to where the hurricane is making landfall, then the hurricane could certainly push that oil on the shore.”

The Weather Channel’s Knabb added that preparations for a hurricane would grind oil clean up efforts to a standstill.

“Even the possibility of a Gulf of Mexico storm could postpone the cleanup and relief activities, even if it doesn’t ultimately hit there,” he said. “Preparations for a storm would halt all of that.”

Louisiana parish officials continue to slam BP

Officials in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, home to marshlands like Pass a Loutre that have already been hit by the oil, and other officials further south to the the Venice, Louisiana Marina scheduled a day-long public meeting Tuesday on hurricane preparedness.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who has badgered federal officials and BP to “step up to the plate” and help Louisiana residents to clean up after the spill or build sand barriers to protect the marshes, was to address the gathering.

Last week, the US Coast Guard approved permits to allow Louisiana officials to build the first of six sand berms off the coast in an attempt to block oil before it reaches the marshlands and Mississippi Delta – a measure that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has been pleading for since the leak began.

Building the berms would entail dredging sediment from designated areas in the Mississippi Delta and piling it up to make man-made barrier islands. It’s a costly project that will take months to complete but as Louisiana enters hurricane season, no dredging had begun.

US officials, meanwhile, expanded a fishing ban in the Gulf of Mexico by more than 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometres), citing safety concerns.

The new area brings to 61,854 square miles (160,200 square kilometers) of Gulf of Mexico waters – or roughly the size of Tunisia – that are now closed to fishing.

After the rough weekend of more hopes lost, BP shares plunged on Amerian markets Tuesday by 12 percent, a sell off that knocked $17 billion off BP’s market value.