* Backup plan features golf balls, shredded tires
* Areas further west threatened in next few days
* BP CEO says containment may be weeks, months away
(Updates with slick moving westward)
By Erwin Seba
ROBERT, La., May 9 BP Plc engineers desperately
explored options on Sunday to control oil gushing from a
ruptured well deep under the Gulf of Mexico after a setback
with a huge undersea containment dome fueled fears of a
prolonged and growing environmental disaster.
The spill is spreading west, further from Florida but
toward the important shipping channels and rich seafood areas
of the Louisiana shoreline, where fishing, shrimping and oyster
harvesting bans have been widened.
A state of emergency was declared in Lafourche Parish,
Louisiana, with sheen, the leading edge of the oil slick,
forecast to come ashore near Port Fourchon within days.
BP (BP.L) is exploring several new options to control the
spill after a buildup of crystallized gas in the dome forced
engineers to delay efforts to place a massive four-story
containment chamber over the rupture on Saturday.
"We're gathering some data to help us with two things. One
is another way to do containment, the second is other ways to
actually stop the flow," BP chief operating officer Doug
Suttles told Reuters in Venice, Louisiana.
BP was also exploring ways to overcome the containment
dome's problem with gas hydrates -- slushy methane gas that
would block the oil from being siphoned up to a waiting ship.
"People are working around the clock at BP headquarters,"
U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told National Public Radio.
But conducting operations at depths of one mile (1.6 km) below
the surface was complicating the challenge.
"We're actually dealing with a source that doesn't have
human access," Allen said.
At least 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) of
oil a day have been gushing unchecked into the Gulf since the
Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, rupturing the well
and killing 11 crew members.
On Dauphin Island, Alabama, a barrier island and beach
resort, sunbathers found tar balls along a short stretch of
beach. Experts were testing the tar to determine if it came
from the Gulf spill.
TAKE A LOOK on the spill [ID:nSPILL]
Breakingviews column [ID:nN07274242]
INSIDER TV: link.reuters.com/gen92k
The spill, which could become the worst in U.S. history,
threatens economic and ecological disaster on Gulf Coast
tourist beaches, wildlife refuges and fishing grounds. It has
forced President Barack Obama to rethink plans to open more
waters to drilling.
The disaster could slow the exploration and development of
offshore oil projects worldwide, the head of the International
Energy Agency warned.
"The future potential is offshore in deeper water and in
the Arctic, so if offshore investment is going to be slowed
down, that is a concern," IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka
told Reuters. [ID:nnWEA1101]
BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward told London's Sunday
Telegraph it could be weeks or months before the spill is
brought under control. He said the company could spend $10
million a day on clean-up efforts. [ID:nLDE64807W]
BP may next try to plug the damaged blowout preventer on
the underwater well by pumping debris into it at high pressure,
a technique called a "junk shot," or attaching a new preventer
on top of it.
"They are actually going to take a bunch of debris -- some
shredded up tires, golf balls and things like that -- and under
very high pressure shoot it into the preventer itself and see
if they can clog it up to stop the leak," Allen told CBS News.
BP also is drilling a relief well to halt the leak but that
could take three months.
Hundreds of boats deployed protective booms and used
dispersants to break up the oil again on Sunday. Crews have
laid more than 900,000 feet (270,000 metres) of boom and spread
290,000 gallons (1.1 million litres) of chemical dispersant.
Latest government forecasts show possible effects of the
spill moving further west, toward Texas.
"With continued winds from the east, potential oil contacts
could reach as far west as Point Au Fer Island by Wednesday,"
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
Sheen is about eight miles off the coast of Port Fourchon,
with heavy oil still some 28 miles offshore, said Charlotte
Randolph, president of Lafourche Parish. "We're keeping a very
close watch, deploying boom and closing some beaches," she
Truckloads of sand are being delivered to Port Fourchon to
fill large sandbags, which will be dropped by National Guard
helicopters in five areas along the coast.
Chett Chiasson, executive director of the Greater Lafourche
Port Commission, said access to the port is a major concern.
"If necessary, our current strategy is to place boom along
Belle Pass in Bayou Lafourche to create a 'decontamination
station' for ingress and egress through the port," he said.
In Alabama, BP-contracted workers in rubber boots and
gloves laid down clusters of oil-absorbing synthetic fibers
called pom-poms, erected storm fencing along the Dauphin Island
beach and collected samples of the tar and water for testing.
Gary Bratt, owner of Chaise N' Rays Rentals, which rents
recreational equipment on Dauphin Island, said the threat of
the spill reaching shore was ruining his business. "Our
business is off 70 percent at this point," with potential
vacationers canceling "right and left," he said.
Gulf Coast politicians echoed the public's fears.
"If this gusher continues for several months, it's going to
cover up the Gulf Coast and it's going to get down into the
Loop Current and that's going to take it down into the Florida
Keys and up the east coast of Florida," Florida Democratic
Senator Bill Nelson told CNN.
"You're talking about massive economic loss to our tourism,
our beaches, our fisheries, very possibly disruption of our
military testing and training which is in the Gulf of Mexico."
Crews labored to cordon off the entrance to Alabama's
Mobile Bay with a containment boom fence to try to safeguard
America's ninth-largest seaport.
Ships arriving at Southwest Pass, the deepwater entrance to
the Mississippi River and New Orleans will be inspected to
determine if they need cleaning.
The spill's only major contact with the shoreline so far
has been in the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana, mostly a
wildlife reserve. The next few days threatens wider contact.
Louisiana officials closed more waters to fishing and
shrimp and oyster harvesting as the slick edged westward.
Shrimp harvesting is now banned from Freshwater Bayou on
the central coast to Louisiana's border with Mississippi. Some
oyster beds west of the Mississippi River also are shut.
Seafood is a $2.4 billion industry in Louisiana, which
produces more than 30 percent of the seafood originating in the
continental United States.
(Additional reporting by Anna Driver in Houston; Tom Brown and
Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Steve Gorman, Verna Gates and Kelli
Dugan in Dauphin Island, Alabama; Eric Beech in Washington;
Writing by John Whitesides and Ros Krasny; Editing by Chris