The tropical wave is some 1,100 miles from the oily disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It could go anywhere from Florida to Mexico. It could wind up little more than rain and blustery wind.
Nonetheless, a broad system tracking west across the Caribbean Sea was an unsettling reminder that hurricane season remains a significant threat to BP’s slow struggle to contain and seal its deep-sea gusher.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Thursday the Coast Guard told him an approaching storm would force BP to stop siphoning oil belching from the well for at least a week — leaving an estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day to freely flow into a Gulf already sick with the stuff.
“That means you have 60,000 barrels a day that will gush uninterrupted and unskimmed for 10 days,” said Nelson, who is pushing the Navy to outfit vessels as skimmers and have them on standby.
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For now, it’s uncertain whether the disorganized wave will disrupt BP operations. The National Hurricane Center gave it a 40 percent shot at strengthening into a tropical system by Friday.
“It’s really a sloppy system,” said hurricane specialist John Cangialosi.
Still, the Coast Guard was watching its progress because any system pushing gale-force winds toward the spill site could be a game-changer. If experts are right, the Atlantic could be dealing with a lot of them in the coming months.
After scuttling efforts to plug the leak at the ocean floor, largely over fears that suspected damage inside the well could trigger an underground blowout, the oil giant has shifted strategy to capturing the oil — at least until relief wells can permanently seal the leak.
Though oil continues spewing from a leaky coupling, BP has been slurping up some 24,000 barrels a day and plans to ramp up collection to as much as 53,000 barrels.
But an approaching storm would force ships doing the work to decouple and steam to safer waters — leaving the uncapped wellhead to flow for days or even a week. To reduce potential delay and attempt to capture the entire flow, BP is fabricating a new coupling system with pipelines that would remain suspended just 300 feet below the surface — theoretically safe from storms and easier to hook back into.
But that upgrade isn’t expected until mid-July. The relief wells, which could also be delayed by storms, aren’t expected until mid-August.
That leaves a window of risk covering the first half of the hurricane season, which is typically quieter than its second half.
Conditions look favorable for the season’s first wave to strengthen in the next two days, Cangialosi said. Some early models also predict it curving into the Gulf — with chances improving for a system on the stronger side of the scale — but others take it across the Yucatan Peninsula into Mexico.
Cangialosi stressed it was too early for long-term predictions. “We have enough uncertainty in the two-day time frame,” he said.
There is also considerable uncertainty about what a hurricane would do to oil already in the Gulf. In an information sheet put out this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said high winds and seas could help break up oil, and speed degradation. But it could also push oil into sensitive inland areas.
In general, a storm passing to the west of the slick would tend to drive oil toward the coast, one to the east would drive it away but experts say an array of factors would affect the impacts.
Professor Stephen Leatherman, co-director of Florida International University’s hurricane research center, agreed the environmental effects would be mixed but on the whole a bad thing for coastal areas.
Storm surge would push oil into places that would have otherwise been untouched. “I see a net destruction for sure with the oil,” he said. “The fact that it breaks it up might be good but we’d get oil farther up rivers and estuaries. Even a tropical storm has some surge and booms aren’t going to stop it.”