Washington (AFP) July 1, 2010
High seas whipped up by Tropical Storm Alex will delay the deployment of a third containment vessel over the ruptured Gulf of Mexico oil well until the middle of next week, a top official said Thursday.
National Incident Coordinator Thad Allen gave the update on the delayed deployment of the vessel, the Helix Producer, as he visited the White House to brief President Barack Obama on the Gulf clean-up operation.
Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs meanwhile said the administration expected to release its revised offshore drilling moratorium -- after an original version was rejected by a judge, within the next few days.
Leaders of the disaster relief operation have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Helix Producer, as they believe it will allow them to double the amount of oil being captured to around 53,000 barrels a day.
The ship had originally been expected to be on station by the end of June.
"We will need about three days after the weather calms... for that vessel to be able to hook up to the flexible coupling that it would be required to do," Allen said.
"So we're looking at somewhere around midweek next week to bring the third production vessel on-line."
Allen also said that the storm, a glancing blow from the heavy weather whipped up by Alex which battered Mexico, had significantly hampered on-shore and near-shore skimming operations to stop oil reaching beaches.
"The small vessels that do the skimming have a difficult time operating out there. We had to pull them back," Allen said, adding that some oil may have penetrated deeper on shore than normal.
There was also a chance, however, that some of the heavier waves had broken up patches of oil, he said.
Allen also said that progress was slightly ahead of schedule on the operation to drill two relief wells which will eventually be used to seal the ruptured Deepwater Horizon gusher.
But the target date is still in August, Allen said.
The White House vowed last week to issue a fresh moratorium on deepwater oil drilling after district judge Martin Feldman said it would cause irreparable economic harm.
Gibbs said the new terms of the moratorium being worked out by the Interior Department would likely come out "in the next few days."
An estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day has been gushing out of the ruptured well since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank on April 22 some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana.
earlier related report
Hurricane Alex, the first of the Atlantic season, hit northeast Mexico with torrential rain and violent winds late Wednesday as a Category Two storm.
Alex struck land far from the area worst hit by the massive BP oil spill -- the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- but forecasters said that booming and skimming operations will again be canceled due to rough seas whipped up by the storm.
"The big focus of our operations right now would be on water skimming, trying to deal with the oil off shore as much as we can," said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the US point man on the clean-up effort.
However the forecast Thursday called for waves six feet (two meters) or higher -- too rough for skimming or even burning the oil in place, Allen told reporters on Wednesday.
The NHC said at 0900 GMT Thursday that Alex's winds extended outward up to 25 miles (35 kilometers) from the eye, and tropical storm force winds extended out to 205 miles (335 kilometers), well into Texas.
Efforts to permanently plug the leak by drilling relief wells however were unaffected, and two containment ships are still capturing the oil at a rate of about 25,000 barrels per day despite seven-foot swells.
But the rough seas delayed the deployment of a third vessel, the Helix Producer, aimed at doubling the amount of crude being contained. According to BP, the new system should be operational on July 7 or 8.
An estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day has been gushing out of the ruptured well since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank on April 22 some 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana.
Some 423 miles (681 kilometers) of US shorelines have now been oiled as crude gushes into the sea at an alarming rate, 10 weeks into the worst environmental disaster in US history.
Animal welfare groups meanwhile sued BP for burning endangered sea turtles and asked a federal court to halt the "controlled burns."
"It is horrifying that these innocent creatures whose habitat has already been devastated by the oil spill are now being burned alive," Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) President Cathy Liss told the court in Louisiana.
The lawsuit said BP was violating the Endangered Species Act and other laws with their "controlled burns" in the Gulf.
"Endangered sea turtles, including the Kemp's Ridley, one of the rarest sea turtles on Earth, are caught in the gathered oil and unable to escape when the oil is set ablaze," the animal welfare groups said.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday ordered a plan to "restore the unique beauty and bounty" of the Gulf coast to be developed.
The Long-Term Gulf Restoration Support Plan aims to "ensure economic recovery, community planning, science-based restoration of the ecosystem and environment, public health and safety efforts, and support of individuals and businesses who suffered losses due to the spill," a White House memo said.
US lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who Obama named to administer BP's 20-billion-dollar claims fund, insisted that BP will "pay every eligible claim," but cautioned that many perceived damages may not qualify.
"I use that famous example of a restaurant in Boston that says, 'I can't get shrimp from Louisiana, and my menu suffers and my business is off,'" Feinberg told the House of Representatives Committee on Small Business on Wednesday.
"Well, no law is going to recognize that claim."
Feinberg said he was still sorting out how to deal with indirect claims like hotels that lose bookings because tourists think the beaches are covered in oil, or people who see their property values decline but live several blocks away from an oiled beach.
"There's no question that the property value has diminished as a result of the spill. That doesn't mean that every property is entitled to compensation," he said.
"There's not enough money in the world to pay everybody who'd like to have money," he said.
Feinberg, who headed a compensation fund for victims of the September 11 attacks, assured lawmakers the fund would be "totally independent" and said BP had agreed to top up the escrow account as needed to meet proper claims.
The British energy giant has already disbursed over 130 million dollars in emergency payments to fishermen and others affected by the slick. Feinberg said lump sum payments would be offered to claimants once the true extent of the damage is assessed.
"It sure would help if the oil would stop," he told the committee.
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