A sunken oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico about 100 kilometers off the coast of Louisiana is leaking petroleum at the rate of about 1,000 barrels per day as industry officials and the U.S. Coast Guard struggle to contain it. There is concern the oil slick could reach the shore and damage the local ecology.
The oil is leaking from two areas in the drilling pipe some 1,500 meters below the surface. Crews working in the area are using underwater robots to assess the damage and find a way to stop the leaks.
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry says experts are working around-the-clock to solve the problem and minimize the damage to aquatic life as well as nearby islands and mainland beaches.
"Right now, we are focusing on securing the well," said Admiral Landry. "But absolutely, we are monitoring 24/7 to make sure there is no additional leak beyond the 1,000 barrels a day."
The leaks resulted from an explosion on April 20 on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform owned by Geneva-based oil services company Transocean, Ltd., and operated by London-based BP, the third-largest international energy company.
Emergency response teams rescued most of the 126 workers were on the rig. But 11 crew members have not been found and are presumed dead.
Coast Guard crews said initially that there was no sign of oil leaking from the rig. But that assessment changed after it sank. Experts say the weight of the sinking rig might have bent pipes near the shut-off valve, causing them to develop leaks.
BP Chief Operating Officer for Exploration and Production Doug Suttles says his company is making every effort to determine the cause of the explosion that led to the rig sinking, but its main focus now is on containing the damage.
"We are also working with industry experts to devise and deploy a method to collect the oil close to the sea bed to minimize spill impacts," said Doug Suttles.
Suttles says crews might be able to use pipes and tubes underwater to collect oil from the leaks to keep it from flowing to the surface and adding to the already serious problem. Officials estimate that the oil slick caused by the leaks covers an area more than 70 kilometers long by 60 kilometers wide.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that it will take several days for the oil slick to reach sensitive coastal areas like the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana or the beaches near Pensacola, Florida. The coastal region is home to sea birds, dolphins and marine life that provide livelihoods for many people in the commercial fishing and tourist industries.
The sinking of the oil rig is an unusual event in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil and gas operations have proliferated during the past three decades with very few problems. The incident comes at a time when President Barack Obama has proposed opening more coastal areas to oil and gas exploration and development. Analysts say that damage from the oil slick could embolden environmental groups and others who oppose expanding such operations.