Special Reports

Alex will delay plan to capture gushing oil

MIAMI — Tropical Storm Alex, expected to intensify into a hurricane today, may not deliver a direct hit to the fleet of ships, aircraft and workers responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but the storm will delay plans to capture more of the crude gushing from the undersea well.

High seas and winds from Alex pushed back the scheduled start of the Helix Producer, a ship that is expected to nearly double BP’s capacity to capture oil with a system of containment domes and pipes.

Though the storm was churning 650 miles southwest of the Deepwater Horizon well head Monday morning, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man on the spill, said Alex could by Wednesday produce 10- to 12-foot seas in the immediate area of the response effort.

“We’re going to have to stop preparations for the Helix Producer,” he said, adding that the storm also could push oil farther inland to marshes and bays.

The floating oil production and storage ship was supposed to be ready by the end of June or early July, according to BP’s initial projections. The ship will be attached to a containment dome via a floating riser pipe, and have the capacity to collect 20,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil a day.

Since the April 20 explosion that sunk the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig — killing 11 workers and triggering the largest spill in the nation’s history — BP has tried several methods to capture and contain the oil.

Only two have been successful.

The first is a containment dome lowered over the broken well 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf on June 3. The dome is attached to a ship, the Discoverer Enterprise, via a fixed pipe, which siphons oil and gas to the surface.

A second ship, the Q4000, was attached to the well’s failed blow out preventer June 16 using a “choke line,” which siphons oil to the surface.

Together, the two systems captured about 22,750 barrels of oil on Saturday and another 24,450 barrels on Sunday, BP reported.

Current projections estimate that the broken well is gushing 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day.

Once the Helix Producer arrives on site, BP has projected the daily total of oil captured by the three ships to grow to between 40,000 and 50,000 barrels.

BP reported that as of Saturday, “the total volume of oil recovered or flared by containment systems is approximately 435,600 barrels.”

The company is stepping up containment efforts as two separate drill ships get closer to permanently sealing the undersea well, a company executive said Monday.

Kent Wells, BP senior vice president, said that he feels “very good” about the progress of drilling for two relief wells, one of which has come within 20 feet, horizontally, of the ruptured well.

Wells said that vertical drilling on the first relief well, now at about 16,770 feet, will continue for another 900 feet before an attempt is made to puncture the existing well from the side.

He said that is on track with a 90-day timetable for drilling two relief wells — the first begun May 2 — so that by early August, heavy mud, then concrete, can be pumped into the spewing well, closing it.

Wells said that if the first relief well succeeds, work will stop on the second, begun May 16 and now more than 12,000 feet deep.

“We have a high degree of confidence in the relief wells,” he said. The company’s “ability to kill the well is dramatically increased at the bottom. We have a much greater chance of killing the well (there) than at the top.”

BP’s optimistic outlook on the progress of drilling for the relief wells came as the company reported that total costs for clean up, claims, grants and other response measures had reached $2.65 billion.

That’s not including the $20 billion fund that BP agreed to create to satisfy liability obligations arising from the oil spill.

To date, 81,701 claims have been opened, from which more than $128.4 million have been paid. No claims have been denied to date.

Much of Allen’s update on Monday focused on the Atlantic’s first named tropical storm of the hurricane season, Alex.

While the storm is forecast to land far from the site of the Deepwater Horizon well head, there is no certainty in weather predictions.

Under the threat of any storm, federal officials will suspend relief and clean-up efforts if gale force winds are projected to hit the disaster zone within five days. The time frame would give more than 6,000 sea vessels, ranging from small private boats to large Coast Guard cutters and barges massed in the Gulf, time to make it back to land safely.