Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Grows

A growing fleet of the air and sea craft is fighting a rapidly expanding oil spill emanating from a well at the bottom of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, as communities around the Gulf Coast brace for its likely impact on commerce and the environment.

Seen from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flying at 2,500 feet, the slick—which looks like a thin skin laid on top of the ocean—seems to extend beyond the horizon. Aircraft can be seen spraying dispersant over some denser, rainbow-colored spots, hoping to break down the molecules of crude to enable it to evaporate into thin air; and ships dragging boom lines attempt to contain the slick's expansion. As of late Monday, the sheen, which was 36 miles offshore, measured about 80 miles by 42 miles.

The crude spill, emanating from broken drilling infrastructure 5,000 feet below the surface at a rate of 1,000 barrels per day, was caused by the explosion and sinking last week of the Transocean Ltd. Deepwater Horizon, which was drilling an exploration well for BP PLC. At the site where the rig once floated, large pockets of reddish-brown crude rise from the deep, and the air above reeks of oil.

On Monday afternoon, at least five ships—the core of the BP-funded armada—endeavored feverishly to collect crude while crews attempted to shut down the well via remotely operated vehicles. The efforts to remotely activate the well's blowout prevention mechanism, which began Sunday, were expected to take 24 to 36 hours. The company also envisages drilling relief wells to block the flow of oil into the existing well, which could take months and cost about $100 million per well. BP, which liable for the clean-up since it owns the oil, is also considering placing a dome over the spill to contain it, something that hasn't been successfully attempted in deep water.

Despite these efforts, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official told The Wall Street Journal late Monday that oil is expected to hit shore Saturday. If that occurs, it could create an environmental disaster, harming local businesses and further incensing opponents to the Obama administration's plan to let the oil industry drill in new offshore areas.

The sheer scale and complexity of the operation highlights the titanic struggles faced by the modern oil industry. Locked out of easier-to-exploit oil reservoirs by national governments in developing countries, international oil companies such as BP, Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC each invest billions of dollars every year in scouring the depths of the sea for hydrocarbons and building massive high-tech platforms. But when problems arise, they're equally difficult to conquer.

Steve Benz, chief executive of the Marine Spill Response Corp., said that the non-profit organization is "mounting the single, largest response effort" in its 20-year history, according to a BP statement.

Venice, the southernmost tip of Louisiana, is about 50 miles from where the Transocean rig sank, and is by no means unfamiliar with the travails—and profits—of the oil industry.

The wetlands here are interspersed with natural gas processing plants and equipment warehouses owned by oilfield-service companies. Earlier this month, an oil spill forced the closure of the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for alligators, red-tailed hawks and brown pelicans. Yet locals embrace the oil industry, which they credit with keeping the community alive even after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"Southern Louisiana survives on oil," says Rene Cross, owner of the Cypress Cove Marina and Lodge. Thirty percent of the marina's business comes from oil companies. Even the distant deepwater platforms are a boon to the other part of the business, sport fishing. These structures function like man-made reefs, attracting tons of sought-after fish, such as blue and white marlin, Mr. Cross said.

But if it takes BP several months to stop the spill, sport fishing, which picks up after Memorial Day, could be hampered.

"If they don't cap the flow by June, it'd be bad for the marine industry," said Michael Ballay, the marina's manager.

Louisiana's $2.4 billion dollar per year sea food industry, an important source of revenue and jobs at Plaquemines Parish, where Venice is located, could suffer. There are major harvesting areas for oysters and shrimp in the eastern part of the state, close to the spill's area. Commercial shrimping and fishing seasons for species such as grouper and greater amberjack resume in the spring and early summer.


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