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BP Setbacks Mount as Cut and Cap Attempt Stalls in Gulf

June 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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BP's latest attempt to contain the Gulf oil leak stalled Wednesday when a saw became stuck in a pipe on the damaged well. Gwen Ifill talks Jane Lubchenco, the head of NOAA, about what the setbacks mean for stopping the flow.
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JIM LEHRER: On this day 44 of the oil spill disaster, there was new trouble a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico and on the surface along the coast.

It began with yet another snag on the seabed at the site of the blown well. A diamond-edged saw got stuck as it tried to cut through the main oil-gushing pipe. That halted the latest attempt to contain the geyser of petroleum.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant: Anybody that’s ever used a saw knows, every once in a while, it will bind up.

JIM LEHRER: National incident commander Thad Allen briefed reporters this morning near Houma, Louisiana.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: The goal is later on today to finish that cut and then to be able to put a containment device over the top of the wellhead and start containing the oil and bring it to the surface and actually flare off the gas and actually produce product moving forward.

JIM LEHRER: Hours later, there was word that the remote-controlled subs had freed the saw, but, still, a giant cloud of raw crude kept spewing from the well, and it will likely get worse before it gets better.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: We don’t anticipate the flow of oil to increase until the second cut is done. Our flow rate technical group has estimated the potential for a 20 percent increase once that cut is made. It has not been made yet. In the meantime, the leak at the kink in the riser pipe is being treated with subsea dispersants.

JIM LEHRER: It’s been more than six weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank. And, by official estimates, more than 40 million gallons of oil may have spilled already, 127 miles of Louisiana coast is now fouled, and the seaborne sludge is now making its way father east.

Oil was reported Tuesday on Petit Bois Island, Mississippi. Swimming was banned on Dauphin Island, Alabama, at the western edge of the state’s Gulf Coast.

Mayor Jeff Collier:

JEFF COLLIER, mayor of Dauphin Island, Alabama: There’s plenty of response teams that are here. We have got a lot of personnel in place, a lot of equipment in place. And they’re — they’re here and have been here and ready to go.

JIM LEHRER: The Alabama National Guard is now flying surveillance missions along the coast, checking for oil.

LT. COL. JOHN DEAN, Alabama National Guard: Well, you constantly reevaluate. You assess daily, assess daily, look to the future, and plan what’s tomorrow, what’s the next day, the next day down the road. And then, each day, you have to readjust your plan based on what’s happening on the ground, just like on the battlefield.

JIM LEHRER: And, in Florida, Governor Charlie Crist said the leading edge of the oil slick could arrive at Pensacola’s beach before the day is out.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST, I-Fla.: Our state resources have determined that the oil sheen, with it are thousand of TARP balls. Skimmers have been deployed near Pensacola. The goal is to remove that oil from near-shore waters and prevent and minimize any potential impacts to our state.

JIM LEHRER: As the oil spread, the federal government again expanded its closure of fishing grounds. More than one-third of federal waters in the Gulf are now off limits, or more than 75,000 square miles of ocean stretching nearly to Cuba.

JIM LEHRER: At an afternoon speech in Pittsburgh, President Obama refocused on possible criminal wrongdoing leading up to the spill.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf right now may prove to be a result of human error, or of corporations taking dangerous shortcuts to compromise safety. But we have to acknowledge that there are inherent risks to drilling four miles beneath the surface of the earth.

JIM LEHRER: At the same time today, federal officials approved a permit for a new offshore well in the Gulf in shallow water about 50 miles off Louisiana. A moratorium on deepwater drilling remains in effect.

GWEN IFILL: Anxiety and anger is spreading, along with the oil, to coastal beaches and marshes of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

Joining us from New Orleans with an update on the situation is Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Association — Oceanic, that is, and Atmospheric Administration,

Welcome, Jane Lubchenco. Welcome back to the program.

You were…

JANE LUBCHENCO, administrator, National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

GWEN IFILL: You were with us about two weeks ago, and you said that you thought that perhaps the oil was nine to 12 days away, now 14 or more days away. Is what we’re seeing come ashore on all these other coastal states, is that what you were talking about then?

JANE LUBCHENCO: We — as you know, we issue a trajectory every day based on the current weather information and oceanographic models, and can predict 72 hours out where the oil is likely to go.

What we’re seeing play out is, unfortunately, what we have expected, in part because of the weather and the currents. It is a very serious tragedy. The president has expressed his grave concern, as have the American people. And he has made it very clear that we are to do everything possible to not only stop the flow, but mitigate the impacts for that oil that may come ashore.

GWEN IFILL: So, that — so, the wind direction that’s coming from the south and the west, is that what’s causing the spread that we’re seeing now?

JANE LUBCHENCO: That’s correct. The oil that’s on the surface is moved around primarily by wind. And, as the wind shifts around, as it does quite frequently here in the Gulf, it pushes the oil in different directions.

There’s a predominantly southerly flow now, and that is pushing the oil to the north, as well as to the east.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you about a couple of other things you said when you were on the program before. You said perhaps that this wasn’t as scary as people thought. And now that a couple of more weeks have passed, and we see that the spill has not been capped, and we see that it’s beginning to show up on beaches as far away as Pensacola, do you think it’s a little scarier now?

JANE LUBCHENCO: I believe that this is a national tragedy. And the president has said as much.

I believe that it is an issue that is likely to continue to play out for quite some time. But it’s one that we are throwing our best effort at, and informed by science, to try to get the best possible understanding that we can of where the oil might be and what its short-term and long-term impacts are going to be.

GWEN IFILL: This certainly — you’re telling us tonight that one of the things for sure is that you don’t know for sure what happens next.

So, what advice do you give to the governments along the coast who see this coming at them? What do they do?

JANE LUBCHENCO: The response by the federal family, I think, has been very clear from the outset, to do everything possible to attack it very aggressively.

And that’s what we are working with our state partners to do. We are preventing — we are presenting them with the best information about what’s likely and helping to do everything possible to lay boom, to prepare for oil coming ashore, and also to deploy teams that know and are trained into how to handle the oil, should it come ashore.

GWEN IFILL: There’s been a lot of talk about the so-called oil plumes, the underwater — I think you called them submerged oil fields, which are spill growing or spreading, depending on how you define them.

There has been a ship out doing some testing on this — these patches of oil, the Gordon Gunter, which you — which is from NOAA. Can you tell us what they found or what the tests on the samples they have taken have shown?

JANE LUBCHENCO: The NOAA ship Gordon Gunter is out near the well site. It has been doing a variety of sampling to identify previously — things characterized previously as anomalies, to try to understand exactly what they are and where they are.

Obviously, it’s more than — more likely than not that there is oil in the water column in the general vicinity of the well. The Gunter is identifying where that might be and getting good images of that.

Clear identification of what those anomalies are, though, will require sampling of the — the water and whatever is in it, and then analyses of those in the laboratory. I was just on another NOAA ship today, the Thomas Jefferson, that is leaving port tonight from New Orleans going out, and is going to be doing complementary sampling to the Gunter. And it, too, will be deploying a variety of instruments to image anomalies and to take samples.

GWEN IFILL: But none of these samples, none of this testing has happened yet? It’s been six weeks.

JANE LUBCHENCO: We have had a lot of instruments telling us that there are signals, that there are — there’s something beneath the surface at various depths in different places.

What we have yet to have confirmation of is what that is. There are a lot of possibilities — there are — there’s a lot of biological activity out there. There are zooplankton. There are fish.

And one of the things that these ships are doing is imaging both during the day, as well as at night, because many of the species that are there migrate to the surface or closer to the surface during the nighttime, and then back down to depth during the day. And, so, by taking the same kind of acoustic images, for example, night and day, you can — you can eliminate the possibility that that is oil.

GWEN IFILL: Is…

JANE LUBCHENCO: But it’s really only by sampling the water directly and then taking it back to a lab that we can confirm definitively that it is oil, and that — those are the results that we are awaiting.

GWEN IFILL: If the oil is now in what we have been calling the loop current, and if that is what is driving it, along with these winds, toward these far-off states, what are you doing to prepare for what is now — we are now in officially hurricane season. How are you preparing for what that might do to the path of this oil?

JANE LUBCHENCO: The oil that was originally identified as being a small amount in the loop current, that current has actually pinched off and is no longer headed towards the Florida Strait. It’s actually recirculating within the Gulf.

It is possible at some point that the loop current may reform, and that oil may become entrained. And I think it is wise for the state of Florida to prepare, in the outside chance that oil may be reaching its shores. And that, in fact, is the information that we have provided to them.

GWEN IFILL: And the hurricane season issue?

JANE LUBCHENCO: I’m sorry.

The hurricane — we have issued an outlook for the upcoming hurricane season, based on various factors that give us idea of how — whether it’s likely to be an abnormal or a normal year.

Our conclusion was that this hurricane season in the Atlantic is likely to be above normal. And if that in fact is the case, then the entire population on the eastern third of the country should be making preparations now for the possibility of hurricane.

The oil interaction with hurricane is one that is worth considering. If oil is on the surface, and a hurricane comes through, it’s quite likely that the hurricane could push that oil farther up on to the shore than would otherwise be the case.

And, so, shoreline crews need to be prepared for that. And, of course, FEMA, who coordinates with states to do response to events like hurricanes, is well prepared to…

GWEN IFILL: OK.

JANE LUBCHENCO: … deal with oil, because that often happens during hurricanes, oil from fuel tanks, whatever, being spilled.

GWEN IFILL: Well, obviously, we will be watching for that next.

Jane Lubchenco of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, thank you very much.

JANE LUBCHENCO: Thanks, Gwen.