March 23, 2011
The oil that has washed onto nearby beaches in recent days is Louisiana sweet crude, which rules out refineries or tankers carrying foreign oil as culprits but leaves the spill’s precise origins very much a mystery, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
“This is definitely crude from the Gulf of Mexico,” said Capt. Jonathan Burton, who is based here and heads the U.S. Coast Guard’s response to the spill.
The crude began washing up on stretches of Louisiana’s shoreline late Saturday and continued to foul beaches through Monday, including on Elmer’s Island, a state wildlife refuge. The Coast Guard said that crude has accumulated on stretches amounting to about a half-mile. The locations of those landings dot about 30 miles of coastline in an area that was among the hardest hit during the spill unleashed by the explosion last year of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which was drilling a deep-water oil and gas well for BP PLC.
Mr. Burton told a press conference the oil appears to have hit the water fairly recently and there is “nothing to suggest” the oil came from BP’s spill last year.
Capt. Edwin Stanton, the head of the Coast Guard’s operations in New Orleans, said in a telephone interview that if the oil had come from the Deepwater Horizon, “we would expect it to be much more weathered.”
In an effort to pinpoint the source—and thus figure out who to send the clean-up bill—the Coast Guard has sent samples of the oil for analysis, and it should have results later this week.
Scientists will compare the chemical properties of the crude with samples collected from known spills, including an hours-long leak at a hurricane-damaged platform reported Saturday by closely-held Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners LLC, Mr. Burton said.
“This is not a large incident in terms of product, but it is spread over a large area,” Mr. Burton said.
Mr. Burton said that there have been no reported landfalls on Tuesday, though the vast amount of freshwater that courses out of the Mississippi River and its tributaries at this time of year may be pushing some oil away from the shore and the hard-to-clean and ecologically sensitive coastal marshes.
A patchy sheen covers the Gulf’s surface along some 30 miles of shoreline, reaching about five miles offshore, Mr. Burton said. The thin film will likely evaporate before it can accumulate at surf’s edge or be cleaned up, he said.
Mr. Burton could offer no estimates of the volume of oil that clean-up crews are facing, as they remove the oil by hand from local beaches. But the Coast Guard and various Louisiana agencies have launched a wide-ranging spill response.
“We’re extremely engaged and taking this as seriously as any other oil spill,” said Karolien Debusschere, with the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said during a Tuesday morning speech here to federal offshore regulators that the amount of what she indicated was oil was “nowhere near the volume of Deepwater Horizon but still significant enough.”
The incident comes at a time when the oil and gas industry is trying to convince regulators, politicians and the public that it can avoid a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which was the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, and should be allowed to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep waters.
Only four deep-water drilling permits and one exploration plan have been issued by U.S. regulators since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, and each of those have come in recent weeks after oil companies were able to comply with more stringent safety guidelines and show that they could contain and clean up any spill.