HOUSTON/LONDON, (Reuters) – The approach of a major storm yesterday forced BP Plc to halt efforts to permanently plug a gushing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, sending ships and workers retreating to safety.
Two rigs stopped drilling the relief wells intended to halt the leak for good and prepared to move out of the storm’s path. Tropical Storm Bonnie weakened to a tropical depression after moving across Florida yesterday.
But Bonnie could strengthen again as it feeds off warm Gulf waters. “Bonnie could regain tropical storm strength as it moves across the Gulf of Mexico,” the Miami-based hurricane National Hurricane Center said.
The storm has been on a track expected to take it over the site of BP’s oil spill this afternoon.
Many non-essential workers abandoned the spill site, and officials said key ships would likely pull out later yesterday and be gone about two days.
Ships collecting seismic and acoustic data on the capped well and those operating underwater robots that provide a live feed of the wellhead would be the last to leave, and could stay if seas do not become too rough, officials said.
“If we have to evacuate the scene we’re probably looking at a very limited window — probably 48 hours,” said retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the top U.S. spill official.
BP sealed the leak last week with a tight-fitting containment cap, choking off the flow of oil for the first time since an April 20 rig explosion killed 11 workers and sent crude spewing into the Gulf, soiling coastlines in five states and devastating tourism and fishery industries.for completing a relief well that would permanently plug the leak to late August. But the ruptured well will remain capped, easing fears the flow would resume.
The evacuation also delayed another potential solution, the launch of a “static kill” operation to pump heavy drilling mud and possibly cement into the well.
BP said it was shutting down production at its eight company-operated platforms in the Gulf in preparation for a full evacuation of workers.
The U.S. government said 28.3 percent of Gulf oil production and 10.4 percent of Gulf gas output by all companies had been shut ahead of the fast-moving storm.
Allen said the storm could have benefits and drawbacks for containment efforts. Heavy waves and tidal churn could help break up the oil, but high winds and waves could drive it deeper into wetlands and coastal areas.
“In some scenarios it might actually be good for cleansing the system, but in other circumstances it might cause even more problems if it blows a lot of the oil directly onshore,” said Chuck Kennicutt, a professor at Texas A&M University who studied the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.