British Petroleum downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic accident at an offshore rig that exploded, causing the worst U.S. oil spill in decades along the Gulf Coast and endangering shoreline habitat.
In its 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis for the well, BP suggested it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur that would lead to a giant crude oil spill and serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals.
At least 1.6 million gallons of oil have spilled so far since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers, according to Coast Guard estimates.
Amid increased finger pointing Friday, efforts sputtered to hold back the giant oil spill seeping into Louisiana’s rich fishing grounds and nesting areas.
The seas were too rough and the winds too strong to burn off the oil, suck it up effectively with skimmer vessels, or hold it in check with the miles of orange and yellow inflatable booms strung along the coast.
The spill — a slick more than 130 miles long and 70 miles wide — threatens hundreds of species of wildlife, including birds, dolphins and the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs that make the Gulf Coast one of the nation’s most abundant sources of seafood. Louisiana closed some fishing grounds and oyster beds because of the risk of oil contamination.
BP’s 52-page exploration plan for the Deepwater Horizon well, filed with the federal Minerals Management Service, says repeatedly that it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.”
And while the company conceded that a spill would impact beaches, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, it argued that “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”
Although the cause of the explosion was under investigation, many of the more than two dozen lawsuits filed in the wake of the explosion claim it was caused when workers for oil services contractor Halliburton Inc. improperly capped the well — a process known as cementing. Halliburton denied it.
According to a 2007 study by the federal Minerals Management Service, which examined the 39 rig blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico between 1992 and 2006, cementing was a contributing factor in 18 of the incidents. In all the cases, gas seepage occurred during or after cementing of the well casing, the MMS said.
While the amount of oil in the gulf already threatened to make it the worst U.S. oil disaster since the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, one expert emphasized that it was impossible to know just how much oil had already escaped and that it could be much more than what BP and the Coast Guard have said.
Even at current estimates, the spill could surpass that of the Valdez — which leaked 11 million gallons — in just two months.
As of Friday, only a sheen of oil from the edges of the slick was washing up at Venice, La., and other extreme southeastern portions of Louisiana. But several miles out, the normally blue-green gulf waters were dotted with sticky, pea- to quarter-sized brown beads with the consistency of tar.
For days, crews have struggled without success to activate the well’s underwater shutoff valve using remotely operated vehicles. They are also drilling a relief well in hopes of injecting mud and concrete to seal off the leak, but that could take three months.
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