BP engineers have finally succeeded in keeping some of the oil gushing from a blown well out of the Gulf of Mexico, hooking up a 1.6km long tube to funnel it into a tanker after more than three weeks of failures.
Millions of litres of crude are already in the water however, and researchers said the black ooze may have entered a major current that could carry it through the Florida Keys and around to the East Coast of the US.
Oil has been spewing since the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on 20 April, killing 11 people and sinking two days later. The US government later estimated the spill at 5,000 barrels a day.
Engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 533mm diameter pipe 1.6km below the sea. After several setbacks, the contraption was hooked up successfully and funnelling oil to the tanker. The oil giant said it would take days to work out how much oil its contraption was sucking up.
The blown well has been leaking for more than three weeks, threatening sea life, commercial fishing and the coastal tourist industry from Louisiana to Florida. BP failed in several previous attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100t container that got clogged with icy crystals.
A researcher said yesterday that computer models showed the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat is being sent later this week to collect samples and learn more.
William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, said one model showed oil had already entered the current, while a second showed the oil was three miles from it - still dangerously close.
The models are based on weather, ocean current and spill data from the US Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.
Hogarth said claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after travelling over hundreds of kilometres from the spill site “can’t be passed off as, ‘It’s not going to be a problem’. This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys”.
BP had previously said the tube, if successful, was expected to collect most of the oil gushing from the well. Yesterday the company said it was too early to measure how much crude was being collected and acknowledged the tube was no panacea.
“It’s a positive move, but let’s keep in context,” said BP senior vice president for exploration and production Kent Wells. “We’re about shutting down the flow of oil from this well.”