With each day that the leaking oil well a mile below the surface remains uncapped, scientists and energy industry observers are imagining outcomes that range from bad to worse to worst, with some forecasting a calamity of historic proportions.
Executives from oil giant BP and other energy companies, meanwhile, shared their own worst-case scenario in a Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers, saying that if they fail to close the well, the spill could increase from an estimated 5,000 barrels a day to 40,000 barrels.
Scientists said the gulf’s “loop current,” a powerful conveyor belt that extends about 3,000 feet deep, will almost surely take the oil down through the eastern gulf to the Straits of Florida, a week-long trip, roughly.
The oil would then hang a sharp left, riding the Florida Current past the Keys and north again, directly into the Gulf Stream, which could carry it within spitting distance of Palm Beach and up the East Coast to Cape Hatteras, N.C.
For the moment, the oil flowing from the blown-out well in what the industry calls Mississippi Canyon Block 252 is still many miles north of the loop current. A three-day forecast by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration does not show the oil and the current crossing paths.
The oil by its nature is hard to peg. It’s not a single, coherent blob but rather an irregular, amoeba-shaped expanse that in some places forms a thin sheen on the water and in other locations is braided and stretched into tendrils of thick, orange-brown gunk. There may be a large plume of oil in the water column, unseen.
No one is sure how much oil is spilling. An early estimate by the Coast Guard of a 1,000-barrel-a-day flow was upped to 5,000 barrels with the discovery of an additional leak, but officials now caution against giving any estimate too much credence.
A barrel of oil is equivalent to 42 gallons.
“It’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the entire food chain, from the plankton to the fish that consume them, to the predators, like the pelicans and the dolphins,” said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s like a slow-moving train wreck about which you can do nothing, or very little.”
The crisis began April 20 with an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon, a huge rig owned by Transocean and leased by BP. The South Korean-built rig, insured for $560 million, sank two days later; the riser, the pipe leading to the rig, collapsed. Three leaks have developed, the largest at the end of the drill pipe that extends from the end of the riser.
Robotic submarines have tried to activate a structure called a blowout preventer that sits atop the wellhead and has multiple tools for clamping the flow of oil in an emergency. So far those efforts have failed.
Few people have a more apocalyptic view than Matt Simmons, a 41-year veteran of the industry. Simmons, has been famous in recent years for warning that the industry is running out of oil. Now he sees a disaster on an epic scale as the pressurized subterranean reservoir known as the Macondo field, tapped for the first time by Deepwater Horizon, continues to vent into the gulf.
“It really is a catastrophe,” Simmons said. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to put the leak out until the reservoir depletes. It’s just too technically challenging.”
He said BP’s cleanup costs could ruin the company. “They’re going to have to clean up the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.
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