Weather could increase Gulf Coast woes as relief wells progress


New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) — The disaster thousands of feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico could be exacerbated by a different type of calamity — bad weather — in the coming week, even as there’s a promising new development in the effort to permanently stop the leak.

BP said Friday its “ranging” process, by which it sends an electrical current that puts out an electromagnetic field down the well bore, detected Wednesday where the leaking well is in relation to the first relief well, at a depth of 16,275 feet. BP said subsequent ranging runs will be needed to more precisely locate the leaking well and figure out how to best intersect the two.

“What they will do is continue to drill down in short intervals, withdraw the pipe, put that sensing device down and slowly close on the well bore to the point where they’re ready to do the intercept drilling. This last part takes some time because they only do several hundred feet at a time.” said Adm. Thad Allen, who’s heading the federal cleanup operation. “They’ll also have a vessel standing by full of mud on the top, so in the event there were to get really close and potentially nick the well bore, they could actually put the mud down to control any hydrocarbons that might come out.”

Drilling and ranging operations will continue over the next few weeks toward the target intercept depth of approximately 18,000 feet. “Kill” operations are expected to begin when the relief well reaches the leaking well. BP said drilling also continues on the relief wells. One is at 16,275 feet, BP said Friday, and the second is at 10,500 feet.

It’s unclear if the weather will cooperate with the drilling and cleanup efforts. There is an 80 percent chance that a weather system in the western Caribbean will better organize and form at least a tropical depression in the next 48 hours, probably later Friday or Saturday, the National Hurricane Center said early Friday afternoon.

The tropical disturbance’s rains have become more concentrated, surface air pressure is dropping and upper-level winds are becoming more conducive to storm development, said the hurricane center. An Air Force “hurricane hunter” plane headed into the system Friday afternoon to determine if it has evolved into a tropical cyclone, with closed circulation around a center of low pressure. If the system evolves into a tropical storm with winds of 39 mph or greater, it would become Alex, the first named storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season.

The disturbance is centered near Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and is expected to move northwest, toward the Yucatan Peninsula.

Some forecasting models show that by early next week the system could be in the Gulf of Mexico. Allen said on CNN’s “American Morning” he’ll have to redeploy people and equipment to safer areas 120 hours (five days) in advance of gale-force winds (at least 32 mph).

Allen said that, in potentially dealing with both the oil spill crisis and severe weather, “There is no playbook. But I will tell you there’s been an extraordinary amount of planning being done… We are going to try to merge two response structures. One has proven effective in the past, and that’s a central coordination of search and rescue and how operations are conducted, and that’s done out of Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida for hurricanes. And we are in the process of integrating our planning processes so the oil spill response is integrated fully within the search and rescue recovery operations.”

If a tropical cyclone moves into the Gulf of Mexico, it could have either positive or negative effects on the threat posed by the oil spill, said CNN meteorologist Chad Myers Thursday night. He said if the weather moves to the east of the gushing crude, the rotating winds would spin the oil-contaminated water out to sea. But if the storm heads west of the leak, the winds will blow the oil right onto the shore with the storm surge, Myers told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Florida, issued a statement Friday saying there needs to be a detailed plan for a “surge” in ships, in case cleanup crews need to abandon their efforts because of a storm and the crude gushes unabated until the weather lets up. In a letter sent Thursday to Allen, Nelson asked whether Navy and other vessels have been identified for prepositioning in order to most quickly respond in the aftermath.

Allen responded, “At the time we would break away is the time you need to be seeking shelter. I understand the need to skim the oil as soon as we can but it’s going to be after the storm passes. I don’t think anybody wants a vessel out there trying to skim oil with the weather building beyond gale-force winds, so the goal would be to get to a safe quadrant of the hurricane, come in behind it and as soon as we can. We have the ability to do that.”

Allen said he and some top Obama administration officials will be headed back to the Gulf region next week to assess the oil relief efforts. He said Vice President Joe Biden would travel to the Unified Command Center in New Orleans and to the Florida panhandle next Tuesday. Also, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and presidential environmental advisor Carol Browner will visit the region “next week,” said Allen.

Costs associated with the Gulf oil disaster have gone up more than $300 million in less than a week, BP said Friday.

“The cost of the response to date amounts to approximately $2.35 billion, including the cost of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, grants to the Gulf states, claims paid and federal costs,” a company statement said. BP put the tab at $2 billion on Monday.

The company previously agreed to set aside $20 billion in an escrow account for spill-related costs, a sum that does not cover fees and penalties that could be imposed by the federal government.

“To date, almost 74,000 claims have been filed and more than 39,000 payments have been made, totaling almost $126 million,” the company said.

According to BP, approximately 37,000 personnel, more than 4,500 vessels and some 100 aircraft are involved in the response effort.

Deepwater drilling could resume by the end of July. U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Thursday denied a request to keep a six-month moratorium imposed by President Barack Obama on May 27 in place, pending a government appeal.

The government has 30 days to show it is beginning to comply with Feldman’s order and start issuing permits. The appeals process can continue, but until the appeal, the government must act as if Feldman’s order will be upheld.

Government lawyers did not file an appeal to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday, though the expected move could come as soon as Friday.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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