U.S. and BP officials sought to quell fears of an unmanageable eco-nightmare in the Gulf Coast on Sunday, after the hyped containment dome failed to stop any oil from gushing out of the energy giant's wrecked Deepwater Horizon rig.
The difficulties in deploying the undersea device were anticipated, and the experiment can still be carried out successfully, said the Unified Command Center, which is coordinating the spill response.
"The containment dome does present some challenges, but that was expected with this operation as it has never been tried at this depth before. However, work does continue on it," said Lt. Commander J.R. Hoeft, a spokesman for the Unified Command, which is being run by the Coast Guard, BP and various U.S. agencies.
On Friday, the four-story, 98-ton concrete and steel vault was submerged almost 5,000 feet below the water's surface in an attempt to cover the leak. The chamber was seen as the best quick-fix to suck up the rushing oil—until it broke down.
A buildup of methane-hydrate crystals choked the top of the funnel-like dome and forced an almost immediate end to the operation.
The massive containment structure now lays idle on the ocean floor as worries grow.
On Monday, BP's CEO Tony Hayward told reporters the company is now planning to deploy a much smaller containment box, the size of a barrel of oil, which would sit over the leak. The "top hat," as it is called, would be deployed within 72 hours. However, it would not contain the full leak and is hardly a silver bullet.
Hayward said that development of solutions to stop the spill is still a matter of trial and error, stressing that this is first time the deep-sea industry has faced an incident of this magnitude.
"There is an enormous amount of learning going on here because we are doing it for real for the first time," Hayward said. "There is every major science and technology organization...working on this problem. The learning from this will be very extensive, and they will inform what needs to happen in the future."
In the meantime, oil has been bursting out of the blown-out well at a rate of at least 5,000 barrels a day since the platform sunk on April 22. As of Sunday, over 80,000 barrels were estimated to be floating around the sea across a 2,000-square mile area—about a third of the total crude that was emptied out in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
According to unofficial estimates, the BP spill could become the nation's worst environmental disaster.
"We're dealing with a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster," Pres. Obama had already said last week, during a first-hand Gulf Coast update.
Experts warn that both the spill's oily goo and the unprecedented amount of toxic "dispersant" being used to contain it are threatening wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, and could do undue harm to Louisiana's $3 billion-a-year fishing industry.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said it was working with governors to determine whether to declare a national fisheries disaster.
Golf ball-sized tarballs landed on the sensitive shorelines of Dauphin Island, a bird sanctuary south of Mobile, Ala., the Unified Command Center confirmed on Sunday, adding to fears of uncontrollable pollution. Officials blasted rumors, however, that chunks of condensed crude had reach Grand Isle, about 60 miles south of New Orleans.
"That is not correct. It was algae. Algae can look similar to oil," said Hoeft.
NOAA announced on Sunday that the oil slick is now heading westward toward the Mississippi Delta and could reach as far west as Point Au Fer Island by Wednesday, just south of Baton Rouge.
As alarm heightens, the response effort continues to swell.
So far, almost 10,000 personnel are responding "to protect the shoreline and wildlife," with an additional 9,500 volunteers, the Unified Command said. Over 330 vessels are on the scene, including skimmers, tugs, barges, and recovery vessels, as well as helicopters, aircraft, remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and several offshore drilling units.
U.S. military crews are feverishly working to set "booms"—the long flotation devices filled with synthetic material that are designed to collect oil into giant, confined clusters so it can be sucked up or burned.
In total, 1.4 million feet of boom has been set, the Unified Command said. In a 24-hour period between Saturday and Sunday, 43,250 feet of boom was deployed. Meanwhile, over 3.4 million gallons of oily water mix was recovered, and 308,885 gallons of toxic chemical dispersant was released, the response team said.
A coming shortage of boom is a growing concern.
"We're working with everyone we can, including the international community to ensure there is enough boom," said Hoeft.
As officials ponder their next move in the complex clean-up with no end in sight, the future of U.S. offshore oil exploration appears to be similarly in limbo.
Senate Bill Could Offer Sense of Drilling's Future
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar declared on May 6, that the agency would officially ban approval of new offshore oil and gas drilling permits until at least May 28, when results of the Obama administration's 30-day investigation into the cause of the BP spill are due to be released.
But the biggest indicator of how offshore drilling could fare in America may come this week, with the unveiling of the stalled climate and energy bill.
The long-awaited legislation, authored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), is expected to be released on Wednesday. The draft legislation contained provisions for new offshore drilling, a concession from green groups at the time. According to Sen. Lieberman, the drilling language remains but with some qualifications, though he has not revealed the details.
Both Sens. Lieberman and Kerry have said the oil spill has added a sense of urgency to passing the bill this year. Many observers, however, say that is wishful thinking.
In a statement, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), the bill's sole Republican co-author who has since withdrawn his support, said the legislation has little chance of passing, in part because of the spill.
"Our original legislation included an expansion of off shore drilling with revenue sharing. It doesn't take long for one to conclude that opposition to expanded offshore drilling with revenue sharing has grown among certain Senate Democrats. Some have even declared energy legislation 'dead on arrival' if it contains an expansion of offshore drilling...I have come to a different conclusion on the issue and strongly believe that in order to become energy independent we must include these options." Sen. Graham said.
I believe there could be more than 60 votes for this bipartisan concept in the future. But there are not nearly 60 votes today, and I do not see them materializing until we deal with the uncertainty of...the consequences of the oil spill," he added.
Meanwhile, nearly 40 environmental groups sent a letter to the Senate last week, urging lawmakers "to reconsider any plans to include expanded offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling in any legislation."
"The unfolding catastrophe clearly illustrates, that offshore drilling is an inherently dangerous, risky, and dirty business," the groups wrote.