Stopping the Gulf Oil Spill

Workers are racing to seal a leak that could cause enormous damage to the environment

May 17, 2010 | By Brenda Iasevoli

Crews are continuing their efforts to contain a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. The energy company British Petroleum (BP), has inserted a tube into a well that has been gushing oil for almost a month. The mile-long tube is funneling some of the oil from the leak to a tanker ship where it is collected. Yesterday, engineers finished guiding robots to insert the tube into the 21-inch pipe.

Since yesterday, the tube has fed about 42,000 gallons of oil into the tanker, BP executive Doug Suttles told CNN. However, the tube cannot capture all of the oil from the leak.

A Big Mess

Oil has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. (An oil rig is a large, offshore platform that is used to house workers and machines needed to drill oil wells in the ocean floor.) The rig caught fire and sank two days later. Eleven people were killed. The U.S. government estimated the spill at 210,000 gallons a day. Some scientists fear the amount could be far greater.

The oil slick has spread across much of the northern Gulf of Mexico, with balls of oil washing up onto the shores of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Researchers have found huge underwater plumes of oil, said Samantha Joye. She is a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. A plume is a vertical body of fluid that rises or expands. Measurements taken of one plume, says Joye, showed that it is 10 miles wide and several hundred feet deep.

Researchers say the plumes could poison sea life both on the surface and below it. To make matters worse, tiny organisms that eat oil are sucking up vast amounts of oxygen. "This can interrupt the food chain at the lowest level," says Joye, "and will trickle up and certainly impact [higher] organisms. Whales, dolphins and tuna all depend on lower depths to survive." It could take decades for the ecosystem to recover, according to Joye.

Researchers now fear that the oil may have seeped into a major ocean current that could carry the oil to the Florida Keys and up the East Coast of the U.S. A boat will be sent later this week to collect samples and learn more.

Stopping the Oil Leak

BP has made several failed attempts to stop the leak. Remote-controlled submarines have been unable to shut off the well. BP also tried to contain the oil leak by lowering a 100-ton box over the gushing well, but the attempt failed when ice-like crystals formed on the box. On May 2, workers began drilling a relief well to reroute the oil, but that could take months to complete.

In the meantime, engineers plan to shoot heavy mud into the well, and then permanently cover the leak in concrete. If that doesn't work, crews plan to shoot golf balls and knotted rope into the nooks and crannies of the leaking valve to plug it.

So far, the tube has been the only successful way to stem the leak. But top U.S. officials warned that the tube "is not a solution." "We will not rest until BP permanently seals the wellhead, the spill is cleaned up, and the communities and natural resources of the Gulf Coast are restored and made whole," said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a joint statement.