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A Whale to the rescue: Can super-skimmer turn tide of Gulf oil spill?

A Taiwanese shipping mogul will showcase his 1,100-foot A Whale super-skimmer for BP and the White House this weekend, potentially bolstering a chief weakness in the Gulf oil spill cleanup: skimming capacity.

By Staff writer / July 2, 2010

The 'A Whale' skimmer, billed as the world's largest oil skimming vessel, is anchored along the Mississippi River in Boothville, Louisiana Thursday. The 1,100-foot ship, converted into a "super skimmer," has arrived in the Gulf of Mexico to assist with cleanup of the BP oil spill.

Sean Gardner/Reuters

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At 1,100 feet long, the A Whale is a super-skimmer for a super-spill. Or at least that's the sales pitch.

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The 10-story-tall A Whale, a former iron ore carrier converted over a 10-day period in June to an oil-slurping behemoth by Taiwanese shipping mogul Nobu Su, dwarfs other ships at the Boothville, La., docks as it readies for 48 hours of testing in the Gulf over the weekend.

If approved by BP and the joint incident command in New Orleans, the A Whale could provide a much-needed scaling up of oil-skimming capacity in the Gulf. More than 500 medium to small oil skimmers – a five-fold increase since early June – are still largely losing the race to clean up oil escaping from the Macondo well ever since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 and causing what this week became the largest oil spill ever in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Moreover, Mr. Su and his A Whale are likely to test EPA and Coast Guard red tape that, critics say, has stood in the way of ramping up oil-collection efforts across the Gulf.

"The big hidden story of the Gulf oil spill is lack of capacity, and the A Whale could be key to turning that around and forcing the issue" of excessive red tape, says former Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook, now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

As BP and the Obama administration have struggled to respond to the oil spewing from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, oil is washing ashore from Pensacola, Fla., to Venice, La. – a testament, critics say, to the lack of skimming capacity in and around the spill.

Norwegian cleanup protocol, for example, calls for skimmers with a minimum capacity of 9,700 barrels of oil a day (407,400 gallons a day) to work a major offshore spill. The largest vessels currently in the Gulf have a 4,000-barrel-a-day capacity.

The Obama administration has been hammered for not calling in larger international skimmers sooner in the spill cleanup, a situation that's now changing.

But retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the US pointman on the spill, says the main challenge of the spill is that it "presents ... as a massive collection of smaller patches of oil," which is why the spill unified command is ramping up the numbers – not necessarily the size – of vessels, aiming to put 750 skimming vessels to work by mid-July.

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