A tropical depression system gathering strength in the western Caribbean could be the latest bad news for Coast Guard officials, BP crews, and the entire clean-up team to contain and clean up the massive oil spill in the Gulf, an operation that has been plagued with setbacks for more than two months.
National Hurricane Center sent the US Air Force plane to conduct a reconnaissance mission Friday to determine the strength of the storm.
According to the analysis of the National Hurricane Center the low-pressure system has a bigger chance, or 80 percent chance to develop into a hurricane in the next 48 hours as it moves toward the Yucatán Peninsula and into the oily Gulf of Mexico.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said in an am interview with reporters Friday morning that he will suspend recovery operations if winds reach a gale force of 40 knots or greater (46 miles an hour or more) and the storm is predicted to be at least 120 hours away from landing in the base of operations at the well.
Still, it’s too early to tell where exactly tropical storm Alex might be hitting and what damage it can bring to the oil on and below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, weather forecasters said. A squadron of ships is working on the spill, including those drilling two relief wells, estimated to be done by mid-August, and the best hope of immobilizing the crude that has been wildly gushing since April 20 in the biggest offshore oil spill in the history U.S.
“We’re not even waiting because you don’t know,” Admiral Allen said. “It could move into a [Category] 2 or 3 or 4 hurricane before it gets here.” Aside from the pressure in collecting oil, which is gushing up to 60,000 barrels (or 2.5 million gallons) a day, Allen said, “whatever the flow rate is now … it will be unattended.”
A hurricane or even just a heavy rain at any strength could cause havoc on the fleet of 6,300 vessels that took two months to assemble to mitigate the oil spill.
A very important task would be to detach the two vessels from their respective riser pipes, which are being utilized to draw up oil. The task would take a lot of time for each vessel. The Discoverer Enterprise alone, which is connected to the well’s containment cap, requires 114 hours, or nearly five days, to dismantle, while the Q4000, which is siphoning oil from the blowout preventer’s choke line, needed 56 hours, or more than two days, to disconnect.
The approaching hurricane could delay the drilling operation of two relief wells, which are designed to stop the gushing oil as early as August. Workers would need at least 104 hours, or more than four days, to secure the drill pipe to so it could survive a storm and be stable enough to commence then operation at a later date, Allen said.
“Overall, our goal is the safety of our personnel and people on those rigs out there,” Allen added.
The strong wind of hurricane could benefit the coast: Surface oil could biodegrade faster, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The hurricane season already started. Because so little information is gathered about this storm, called hurricane Alex, it is unclear where the oil would spread. The storm surge is heading toward the west side of the oil slick, which means it is likely the oil would go in the direction of the coast rather than farther out to the heart of the sea.