Skimming capacity up fivefold in gulf oil spill recovery

Paula Dittrick
OGJ Senior Staff Writer

HOUSTON, July 10 -- Skimming capacity in the Gulf of Mexico was boosted more than fivefold within about 30 days in response to the ongoing oil spill that was triggered by an Apr. 20 explosion and fire on Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig, an official said.

National Incident Commander and retired US Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen reported that about 550 skimming vessels of various sizes were available in the gulf by early July compared with 100 large skimmers available in early June.

Yet, the oil spill continues to spread with oil being reported in Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. During the Independence Day holiday weekend, strong wind and waves pushed tar balls and an oil sheen past a line of barges intended to block the passes connecting the lake with the gulf.

Out in the gulf, test results in early July proved inconclusive on the effectiveness of a giant skimmer, which was converted from a supertanker, Allen said. The 1,100-ft vessel, called “A Whale” and owned by TMT Shipping Offshore, has been granted permission to extend its test.

An initial 48-hr test for A Whale was inconclusive, in part because of rough seas associated with Hurricane Alex, TMT Shipping said. Allen said part of the problem was that the spill involves “hundreds” of small slicks rather than one massive slick.

“We need to have aerial surveillance to find the oil because, if you’re sitting in a boat looking out, you could have oil 100 yards away and not be able to see it,” Allen said, adding that he was working with the US Air Force to coordinate air surveillance for the entire gulf. 

At USCG’s request, the US Navy is providing 22 additional shallow-water skimmers, 35 tow boats, and three harbor buster skimmers normally stationed around the country for the spill response to the runaway Macondo well, operated by BP PLC in 5,000 ft of water on Mississippi Canyon Block 252.

The Unified Command will continue ramping up skimmer capability throughout the coming weeks, with a baseline target of more than 750 skimmers collecting oil in gulf waters by mid-July, and more by the beginning of August, Allen said.

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.

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