As coastal warnings for what had been Tropical Storm Bonnie were suspended Saturday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen ordered the ships that had left BP’s broken well in the Gulf of Mexico back to the area so they could resume work as soon as possible.
“Within 24 hours we should have most of the vessels back on scene,” Allen said in a call just before noon on Saturday.
Allen, the National Incident Commander overseeing BP’s efforts to shut down the renegade well, ordered an evacuation Thursday night as Bonnie strengthened to a tropical storm and set a course for the well site and New Orleans. But the storm failed to reorganize after grazing Florida and devolved into a tropical depression with winds of 30 miles per hour.
The weakening condition of the storm was a relief to local leaders across southeast Louisiana, even as Bonnie posed a minimal threat to coastal communities, the scare cost BP a week of work in shutting down the well, which began spewing oil when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20 and subsequently sank, killing 11 workers.
Without Bonnie’s interruption, Allen said, BP would have been able to set the casing on the relief well — the final step before the company can drill into the original well to fill it with cement. While the cement was curing, BP would have been able to start the “static kill,” or pumping the well with drilling mud to gain better control of it. Right now, the well has a temporary cap on it.
But even with the time losses, Allen said responders have to move people and equipment out of the way if a tropical system threatens, which carries grim implications for the efforts to permanently stop the well during a busy hurricane season.
“We have no choice to start well ahead of time if we believe a storm is going to bring gale force winds,” Allen said. “We’re going to be playing a cat and mouse game for the rest of the hurricane season.”
Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the National Hurricane Center, said that seas were about three to five feet at the Deepwater Horizon site, and no significant storm surge was expected in coastal communities.
“The storm surge is less than we originally anticipated, but some of the oil could be pushed into the marshes,” she said.
Lubchenco said that Bonnie isn’t strong enough to stir up oil far below the ocean surface. Bonnie could have some positive effects by swishing around the oil at the surface and helping to break it up so that bacteria in the water can digest the droplets and oil weathers more quickly into tar balls.
“It will also cause more natural dispersion, lowering the concentration of oil in the water,” she said. “I think the biggest impact will be redistributing the oil at the surface. Some of that oil will be pushed onto shore, some of that will be displaced off the shore.”