Originally posted on CNN.com - August 10, 2010
Mobile, Alabama (CNN) -- The man who has taken over the government agency that regulates offshore drilling said Tuesday he can't see the Obama administration's ban on the practice "lasting longer than November 30."
"Obviously, we can't predict everything that we learn or everything that may happen in the outside world before then, but [Interior] Secretary [Ken] Salazar thought that was an appropriate ending point. I see no information so far that would justify extending the moratorium. ... [It's] not impossible but unlikely," said Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the former Minerals Management Service.
Bromwich is hosting forums this week with federal, state and local leaders across the Gulf coast to gather input on deepwater drilling safety reforms, well containment and oil spill response. He is being briefed by panels of experts from academia, the environmental community and the oil and gas industry so he can evaluate whether to recommend any modifications to the scope or duration of deepwater drilling suspensions announced by Salazar on July 12.
Right now, drilling of any sort in the Gulf of Mexico is coming to a standstill. Drilling on the final 30 feet of a relief well expected to intercept BP's crippled oil well in the Gulf was suspended because of a tropical disturbance in the region, the government's national incident commander said Tuesday.
The weather may delay the process by two to three days, said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen.
He said that would push the interception date -- which had been expected Thursday or Friday -- to sometime between Sunday and next Tuesday, weather permitting, at which point crews could begin the "bottom kill" procedure to permanently cement the well.
The drilling apparatus is expected to remain on site because the weather was not projected to be very strong, Allen said. "Development Driller 3 can take the expected wave heights. There's no problem there," he said.
Allen said that in preparation for the storm, crews had pulled the drill string out, put a plug known as a "packer" in the casing pipe and filled the riser with seawater so the pipe would be stable. He said that's an easily reversible process once the weather passes: Purge the seawater out, pull the packer out and reinsert the drill string to begin drilling again.
BP spokeswoman Elizabeth Adams added that BP's eight other assets in the Gulf of Mexico are in phase 2 of their emergency operations, requiring that nonessential personnel leave, facilities are secured and crews prepare for shut-in.
Strong thunderstorms and gusty winds are possible over the well site starting Wednesday, CNN meteorologist Sean Morris said.
The National Hurricane Center said Tuesday afternoon that a low-pressure system just off the southwestern coast of Florida was moving west-northwestward in the Gulf, accompanied by a large area of showers and squalls, and had a high (70 percent) chance of developing into a tropical depression or worse storm by 2 p.m. Thursday. The Air Force was sending a plane to the system Tuesday afternoon to help determine if a tropical depression was forming, the hurricane center said.
Landfall could be anywhere between Houston, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana, on Thursday or Friday, Morris said.
Allen said scientists planned to conduct some pressure tests that they had been unable to perform before last week's "static kill" operation cemented the center of the well from above. He stressed that these new pressure tests were not instigated by any concerns about the well's current status, as recent pressure tests had shown the expected levels of well "integrity."
President Barack Obama, who has been under pressure to show a strong response to the spill, said he was committed to standing by communities along the Gulf Coast well beyond the final sealing of the well.
"What is clear is that the battle to stop the oil flowing into the Gulf is just about over. Our work goes on, though," he said in Washington.
The oil spill hasn't just hurt BP's bottom line -- it's inflicted heavy blows on Gulf Coast industries like tourism and fishing.
But there was some good news for commercial and recreational fishers Tuesday. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened 5,144 square miles of Gulf waters for finfish fishing, after consulting with the Food and Drug Administration, and adhering to a reopening protocol agreed to by NOAA, the FDA, and the Gulf Coast states.
NOAA said that since July 3, its data have shown no oil in the area, and Coast Guard observers flying over the area in the past 30 days also have not observed any oil. In addition, NOAA said trajectory models show the area is at a low risk for future exposure to oil and, most importantly, fish caught in the area and tested by NOAA experts have shown no signs of contamination.
The closed area now covers 52,395 miles, or 22 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf, down from 37 percent at its height, NOAA said. On July 22, NOAA reopened 26,388 square miles of Gulf water off of the Florida Peninsula.
Some fisherman and others economically affected by the oil spill are looking for restitution through the courts. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ruled Tuesday that New Orleans-area federal District Judge Carl J. Barbier will preside over all the primary legal matters related to the Gulf oil spill, according a news release provided by Brent Coon and Associates, a law firm that helped argue for the consolidation during a July 29 hearing in Boise, Idaho.
The firm says it represents hundreds of rig workers, shrimpers, fishermen and business/condo owners along the Gulf Coast. The press release also says it is not known if some pending litigation in Houston will be consolidated.
A group of concerned St. Louis, Missouri, residents said they left on a caravan of support Monday, spending money at small businesses along the Gulf Coast, using funds raised from around the country. The caravan is expected to travel through Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, completing its trek Friday.
"We've learned of so many businesses in the Gulf region that are losing their customers, employees and dreams because of the impact on tourism," organizer Dennis Gorg said in a statement. "As a small-business owner, I can't imagine how I'd support the people who depend on me. We can do something. We can become tourists with a purpose."
The well erupted after an April 20 explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon that left 11 men dead. A temporary cap contained the spill July 15, and nearly 3,000 barrels of heavy drilling mud and cement drove the oil back into the ocean floor last week.
The well gushed an estimated 53,000 barrels (2.3 million gallons) of oil per day before it was capped, with some of the oil ending up on beaches or in marshes. Fresh, green grass has begun growing again in some of the hardest-hit marshes of southern Louisiana, but oil continues to wash ashore in places.
CNN's Vivian Kuo, Eric Fiegel, Ed Lavandera and David Mattingly contributed to this report.