Tropical storm could be latest blow to containing massive Gulf spill; forecasters watch path

By Michael Kunzelman, AP
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Storm could be latest problem in spill cleanup

NEW ORLEANS — A tropical storm churning in the Caribbean could be the latest bad news for BP crews trying to contain and clean up the massive oil spill in the Gulf, an effort that has been plagued by setbacks for more than two months.

It is still too early to tell exactly where Tropical Storm Alex might go or how it might affect oil on and below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said.

If gale-force winds are predicted within five days, BP will begin moving the armada of ships working on the spill, including the rigs drilling two relief wells that are the best hope of stopping the oil.

The wells are projected to be done by mid-August if bad weather doesn’t interrupt the drilling.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Saturday that officials are watching Alex carefully even though the current forecast shows it churning toward Mexico and missing the northern Gulf Coast and the spill.

“We know that these tracks can change and we’re paying very close attention to it,” he said.

BP says its effort to drill through 2½ miles of rock to relieve pressure on the blown-out well is on target. Once the new well intersects the ruptured one, BP plans to pump in heavy drilling mud to stop the oil flow and plug the well with cement.

The crew that has been drilling one of the relief wells since early May ran a test to confirm it is on the right path, using a tool that detects the magnetic field around the casing of the original, blown-out well.

“The layman’s translation is, ‘We are where we thought we were,’” said BP spokesman Bill Salvin.

The oil giant’s stock tumbled to a 14-year low anyway Friday on news that BP has now spent around $2.35 billion dealing with the disaster. Somewhere between 69 million and 132 million gallons of crude have spewed into the water since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.

The company has lost more than $100 billion in market value since that day, and its stock is worth less than half the $60 or so it was selling for.

Tropical Storm Alex could create even more problems. The effort to capture the oil gushing from the sea bottom could be interrupted for up to two weeks if a storm forces BP to move its equipment out of harm’s way, Allen said.

Salvin said BP would need about five days to move or secure equipment including ships that are processing the oil sucked up by the containment cap on the well and the rigs drilling the relief wells.

The company is working on a different containment system that would be easier to disconnect and hook back up if a storm interrupted the work.

BP is capturing anywhere from 840,000 to 1.2 million gallons of oil a day. Worst-case government estimates say 2.5 million gallons a day are leaking from the well, though no one really knows for sure.

In other news:

— A financial disclosure report released Friday shows that the Louisiana judge who struck down the Obama administration’s six-month ban on deep-water drilling in the Gulf has sold many of his energy investments. U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman still owns eight energy-related investments, including stock in Exxon Mobil Corp. Among the assets he sold was stock in Transocean, which owned the rig that exploded. The Justice Department asked a federal appeals court Friday to delay Feldman’s ruling “to preserve the status quo” during the government’s appeal.

— Labor Secretary Hilda Solis slammed BP — along with Massey Energy, owner of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers died in an explosion in April — saying they need better safety measures. “We are not saying go out of business,” she said. “Do your job better. Make an investment in your employees. We want you to make a profit, but not at the expense of killing your employees.”

— Vice President Joe Biden will head to the Gulf on Tuesday to visit a command center in New Orleans and the oil-fouled Florida Panhandle.

— The IRS said payments for lost wages from BP’s $20 billion victims compensation fund are taxable just like regular income. Payments for physical injuries or property loss are generally tax-free.

Associated Press writers Lisa Leff and Cain Burdeau in New Orleans, David Fischer in Miami and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

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