Tropical storm Alex threatens to delay Obama's '90 percent' promise

Tropical storm Alex has created rough seas at the Deepwater Horizon site, potentially delaying until July BP's plans to double oil collection at the well in the Gulf oil spill

Gerardo Garcia/Reuters
Tropical storm Alex churns the surf in Cancun, Mexico, Saturday. Despite being hundreds of miles away from the Gulf oil spill, the storm could delay efforts to bring a third ship online in oil-collection efforts this week.

Tropical storm Alex might not be in the Gulf oil spill's neighborhood, but it is already threatening to delay a plan to double the amount of oil captured at the well, and it could cause further disruptions later this week, officials said Monday.

Because of Alex, waves at the Deepwater Horizon site are currently at about five to six feet. That could delay the deployment of the Helix Producer, a ship that can process about 25,000 barrels (1 million gallons) of oil daily, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's emergency response coordinator, in a press briefing Monday.

BP Vice President Kent Wells told Monday that the decision to delay the deployment of the Helix Producer had already been made. "While we were on track for June to bring on the Helix Producer, it'll be roughly a week after that, somewhere around the sixth or seventh of July," he told the website.

IN PICTURES: Huge hurricanes in the past two decades

The delay would mean that it would be impossible for 90 percent of the oil to be captured by the end of the month – something President Obama had alluded to generally in his June 16 Oval Office speech: "In the coming days and weeks, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well."

Given that Alex's projected path is hundreds of miles from the Gulf oil spill, the potential delay is the smallest taste of how dramatically a closer storm could affect the oil collection.

Indeed, with Alex forecast to become a hurricane Tuesday and waves at the Deepwater Horizon site expected to peak at 10 to 12 feet, there are questions about whether the oil-collection system currently in place will have to be abandoned temporarily.

The Discoverer Enterprise – the ship that is connected to the containment cap atop the sheared stump of riser pipe on the sea floor – might have to disengage if seas get higher than 12 feet. Allen said no decision has been made yet, but his team is monitoring the situation.

The current collection system, which comprises the Discoverer Enterprise and another ship, the Q4000, captured about 24,500 barrels of oil during the past day, Allen said.

While it is not known how much oil is leaking out of the well, a panel of scientists has suggested that the range is 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. When the Helix Producer comes online, the current oil-collection system could collect a maximum of 53,000 barrels a day – nearing or perhaps eclipsing Mr. Obama's 90 percent forecast if the estimates are correct.

Later this week, federal officials will decide whether to essentially scrap the current oil-collection system for a new system that would be easier to manage in the event of a hurricane. It would include a more robust cap and more flexible riser pipes from the well to the surface.

This new system, if successful, could collect a maximum of 80,000 barrels a day.

IN PICTURES: Huge hurricanes in the past two decades


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