VENICE, Louisiana (Reuters) - Workers toiled above and below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday to plug a gushing oil leak and protect the U.S. shoreline in one of the biggest spill containment efforts ever mounted.
London-based energy giant BP loaded a massive metal device on a barge that is designed to channel the flow of leaking oil from the seabed to a drilling ship on the surface.
The device, seen as the best chance to stem the oil leak in the short term, will take about 12 hours to reach the leak site off the Louisiana coast. After installation, it could begin capturing the oil on Monday, BP’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, said at a briefing.
Prevailing winds have kept the giant oil slick offshore, two weeks after a deadly explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig triggered the breach, and the slick was barely moving on Wednesday.
“If you look at our trajectory for the next 72 hours, they don’t show a whole lot of real movement from where it’s at,” said Charlie Henry, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The calm weather allowed for teams to conduct a series of “controlled burns” of the massive oil slick, the first such attempts since a 28-minute blaze on April 28 that removed thousands of gallons of fuel.
Controlled burns remove oil from the open water in an effort to protect shoreline and wildlife. Wednesday’s burns were targeted at areas with the heaviest concentration of oil, typically closer to the leak site and further from shore.
Elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, crews deployed miles (km) of protective booms to block the huge slick and used dispersants to break up the thick oil as it drifted slowly near popular tourist beaches and fishing grounds, threatening an environmental catastrophe.
BP used remote-operated undersea vehicles to cap one of three leaks in the ruptured well but oil still flowed at an unchanged rate of 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) a day.
Asked about a potential worst-case scenario if current measures were to fail, Suttles said the ruptured well could gush at a rate of 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons/9.5 million liters) a day.
A drillship will be located above the 98-ton containment device, with the capacity of holding 139,000 barrels of oil (5.8 million gallons/21.9 million liters), John Curry, BP’s director of external affairs, told CNN.
“This is one option that we think will have a very good chance of success,” he said.
BP has also started drilling a relief well, but that could take two or three months to complete.
Several hundred boats took advantage of a second consecutive day of calm seas to lay down miles of containment booms and deploy dispersants, and thousands of military and civilian personnel participated in the operations.
In addition, 2,000 volunteers in Gulf Coast communities prepared to assist in the cleanup.
Authorities were on alert for the first major landfall of the oil slick, estimated to be at least 130 miles by 70 miles in size, and scientists monitored the impact on marine and coastal wildlife in the region.
“The risks posed by the BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast’s environment and economy continue to grow,” said National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger.
“The oil we’re seeing on the water’s surface is only part of the problem. Much of it has been sunk by dispersants and suspended in the water column, posing a grave threat to fish and other marine life,” he said.
BP shares rose on Wednesday. Bargain hunting has emerged from investors guessing that enough value — more than $32 billion — had been stripped from the company’s market value.
Shares in London closed at 562.7 pence, up 1.1 percent. BP’s American Depository Receipts rose 1.2 percent to $50.99.
Analysts said the sell-off after the spill was viewed as an overreaction, but Moody’s Investors Service cut its outlook on BP debt to negative, citing uncertainty over the costs related to the oil spill.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is causing a few delays for oil takers in the region, but worries about major disruptions to production or transport have faded for now. Crude oil prices on NYMEX tumbled below $80 per barrel.
The spill forced President Barack Obama to suspend plans to expand offshore oil drilling, unveiled last month partly to woo Republican support for climate legislation.
The White House and U.S. lawmakers vowed to review a law limiting BP’s liability for lost revenues from fishing and other business to $75 million and raise it to $10 billion.
Politicians have kept up a verbal assault on BP.
“BP is now known as British Petroleum. If this leak is not shut off soon it will become known as Bayou Polluter,” said Massachusetts Democratic Representative Ed Markey, one of several lawmakers who quizzed BP executives in Washington on Tuesday about the spill and the company’s cleanup and compensation plans.
BP’s Suttles said, “Any impacts that are legitimate and created by this, we’ll meet those responsibilities.”
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited wildlife refuges in Alabama and Louisiana on Wednesday to keep the pressure on BP and show the Obama administration’s level of engagement.
“The president has been on top of what has been going on here on a daily basis,” Salazar told a media briefing in Robert, Louisiana. “We are holding BP accountable for taking the actions it said it would take.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke were among other administration officials expected this week.
In Venice, Louisiana, workers loaded lengths of boom onto a barge as part of a plan to protect a vast network of inshore estuaries and canals that form the Mississippi Delta.
“We will monitor the water quality from the barge and at the first sign of oil we will deploy (the boom) immediately,” said Kurt Fromherz, spokesman for Plaquemines parish.
The leak, still weeks or months away from being stopped, threatens to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe in Alaska, the worst U.S. oil spill.
Additional reporting by Matt Daily in New York and Tom Bergin in London; Anna Driver and Chris Baltimore in Houston; Tom Brown and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Michael Peltier in Pensacola; and Richard Cowan in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides and Ros Krasny; Editing by Peter Cooney