Deep-sea Ice Crystals Stymie Oil Leak Fix
    2010-05-09 21:50:19     APTN      Web Editor: Jiang Aitao


(Video APTN)

As a massive oil leak continued on Saturday spit thousands of gallons more crude into the Gulf of Mexico, off the US coast, a big box that BP hoped would be its saviour sat idle hundreds of feet away, encased in ice crystals which rendered it useless.

The company's first attempt to divert the oil had failed, its mission now in serious doubt. Meanwhile, thick blobs of tar washed up on Alabama's white sand beaches, yet another sign the spill was worsening.

It had taken about two weeks to build the box and three days to cart it 50 miles out to the source of the gushing oil well, where it was slowly lowered it to the well a mile (1.6 km) below the surface, but the frozen depths were too cold and ice crystals prevented it from working.

BP officials were not giving up hopes that the containment box - either the one brought there or a larger one being built - could cover the well.

But they said it could be days before another attempt to capture the oil and funnel it to a tanker at the surface would be tried.

"I wouldn't say it's failed yet," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said. "What I would say is what we attempted to do ... didn't work."

May 6, 2010, Gulf Of Mexico, USA: Dark clouds of smoke and fire emerge as oil burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Coast Guard working in partnership with BP PLC, local residents, and other federal agencies conducted the "in situ burn" to aid in preventing the spread of oil following the April 20 explosion on Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit Deepwater Horizon. [Photo: CFP]

There was a renewed sense of urgency as balls of tar began washing up on Dauphin Island, three miles off the Alabama mainland at the mouth of Mobile Bay, and much farther east than the thin, rainbow sheens that have arrived sporadically in the Louisiana marshes.

About a half dozen tar balls had been collected by Saturday afternoon at Dauphin Island, Coast Guard chief warrant officer Adam Wine said in Mobile, and crews in protective clothing patrolled the beach for debris, and deployed oil catching pom-poms along the shoreline.

Authorities planned to test the substance but strongly suspected it came from the oil spill.

In the nearly three weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers, about 210,000 gallons of crude a day has been flowing into the Gulf.

Until Saturday none of the thick sludge - those iconic images of past spills - had reached shore.

In the operation to cap the well with the containment box, it had taken more than 12 hours to slowly lower to the seafloor the peaked box the size of a four-storey house, a task that required painstaking precision to accurately position it over the well, for fear of damaging the leaking pipe and making the problem worse.

Nothing like it had been attempted at such depths, where water pressure can crush a submarine.

Company and Coast Guard officials had cautioned that icelike hydrates, a slushy mixture of gas and water, would be one of the biggest challenges to the containment box plan, and their warnings proved accurate.

The crystals clogged the opening in the top of the peaked box, BP's Suttles said, like sand in a funnel, only upside-down.

Options under consideration included raising the box high enough that warmer water would prevent the slush from forming, or using heated water or methanol.

The spot where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank now teems with vessels working on containing the rogue well.

There are 15 boats and large ships at or near the site - some being used in an ongoing effort to drill a relief well, considered a permanent if weeks-away fix.

On Saturday night, crews lowered a remote operated vehicle from the ship Ocean Intervention III to assist in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill containment efforts.

The original blowout was triggered by a bubble of methane gas that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before exploding, according to interviews with rig workers conducted during BP PLC's internal investigation.

Deep sea oil drillers often encounter pockets of methane crystals as they dig into the earth.

As the bubble rose, it intensified and grew, breaking through various safety barriers, an expert said.

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