The BP oil spill may have passed an ominous milestone this week. If the government’s highest estimates are correct, it has become the largest oil spill ever in the Gulf of Mexico.
The government’s highest numbers put the amount of oil that has gushed into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig at about 140.6 million gallons. Up until now, the distinction of the biggest Gulf spill was held by the 1979-1980 Ixtoc I disaster off Mexico’s coast. That spill discharged 140 million gallons of oil before it was stopped.
Even at the governmentâ€™s low-end estimate, 71 million gallons, the BP spill still ranks among the top 10 worst in history.
Meanwhile, cleanup crews are preparing to resume skimming and burning operations, now that Hurricane Alex has passed. While the storm made landfall some 500 miles away, high seas caused the removal of many vessels from the spill area. The high surf also served to push even more oil up onto Gulf Coast beaches.
Two vessels are now collecting oil at a rate of about 25,000 barrels a day – the Discoverer Enterprise, which stores the crude, and the Q4000, which burns it in a flare. BP is working to install a new ship that would roughly double the amount of crude siphoned up from the spewing well. Once operational, the vessel, known as the Helix Producer, will bring BP’s combined collection capacity to 53,000 barrels per day. Rough seas delayed that operation, but once it starts up again, it should take about three days for it to be completed.
Another vessel, a Taiwanese tanker called the “A-Whale,” arrived in the Gulf yesterday to aid with clean up. According to ABC News, the owner of the ship, mysterious Taiwanese billionaire Nobu Su, ordered his engineers to cut vents in the bow and redesign the tanks inside, creating the largest skimming vessel in the world. The mammoth ship could scoop as much as 21 million gallons of oily water a day.
This is how the A-Whale operation is supposed to work: The ship will pump an oil-water mix into its holding tanks. The oil will float to the surface, where it will be skimmed off. The remaining water then will be pumped back into the Gulf. The vessel’s chief officer told ABC that though the process won’t get every drop of oil out of the water, it could be a huge help.
However, skimming using such a large ship has never been tried before, so there are no guarantees it will work as planned.