In the Gulf of Mexico, Tropical Storm Alex is threatening to build into a full-blown hurricane. It could threaten the coast of Texas or Mexico, but at this point it does not appear to be headed for the blown-out oil well off Louisiana. Even so, it's quite possible that the storm could spawn 10- to 12-foot waves, which could sweep across the Gulf and complicate efforts to control the spewing oil well.
Even though BP is collecting about 25,000 barrels of oil a day from the blown-out well, there's still plenty more oil surging into the sea. BP Vice President Kent Wells says that this week, the company was hoping to run a pipe from the well to another ship in order to double their oil collection capacity.
"Basically, we've got about three days of additional work to do," he says. "This is very, I'll call it, precise work. A lot of it's done on the surface. And we require flat sea states to do that work."
Unfortunately the seas are not flat. The big storm Alex is way off to the west. It doesn't seem to be threatening the work site with wind and rain, but it is roiling the sea surface for hundreds of miles.
"So it will create waves, and we expect over the next six or seven days the sea heights to go from three to four feet ,which they have been, up to perhaps 10, even 12 feet. And that will restrict our ability to do these operations," he says.
Installing this new collection system could potentially be a big deal. If it operates near capacity, it could at long last reduce the torrent of oil to a much smaller trickle. But it's not looking promising for this week, as BP had hoped.
"Depending on weather, we could see a six- to seven-day delay in bringing this next phase of our subsidy containment online," he says.
And if the waves are rough enough, crews could even have to stop collecting oil with the drill ship Enterprise, which right now is gathering more than half of the oil that's being salvaged from the damaged well.
Effects Of The Storm
In a news conference conducted over a speaker phone, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen says the storm system is already affecting the movement of oil across the surface of the Gulf.
"It was generally heading east," Allen says.
In fact, people were bracing for it along the panhandle of Florida. But now it's turned more to the north.
"We're very concerned about that. We're sending forces there as we speak," he says.
Oil skimmers will eventually have to head for safety if the seas get too rough, and at some point, nothing can protect the most vulnerable areas along the coast. If there's a full-blown storm surge with some future storm, then that will push oil deep into the delicate marshes.