Oil Slick Grows Faster Than Anticipated and Could Have Been Avoided

Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico
Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

The Deepwater Horizon offshore rig leased by BP (BP) to drill in the Gulf of Mexico may be leaking five times as much oil than previously estimated. The situation is bad enough that a BP executive said the company would welcome U.S. military help.

But the disaster could have been avoided.

According toThe Wall Street Journal, the rig didn't have a remote-control shut-off switch. "The lack of the device, called an acoustic switch, could amplify concerns over the environmental impact of offshore drilling after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig last week." Regulators in Norway and Brazil, both large oil producing nations, require the switches in offshore wells in their waters, the paper wrote.

No Simple Solutions

The valve issue came up just as federal officials and experts announced that 5,000 barrels a day are gushing out, rather than the 1,000 previously estimated. Several media outlets say the new figure is based on observations made from planes flying over the slick. The new numbers were announced by the Coast Guard based on assessments by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While it's hard to imagine how early estimates could have been so wrong, the new one means that the shores off Louisiana are likely to be hit with enormous amounts of crude and that the ecological disaster could grow more quickly than previously believed.

The Coast Guard and U.S. officials have begun to test-burning off the slick, but the spill's area is now so great that burning off any significant portion of it may be impossible because a fire would be so difficult to control. The New York Times reports that several species are in particular danger. These include certain types of birds, ocean-dwelling fish and sperm whales.

Some of the world's best experts on controling oil spills and a number of federal agencies are at work on the problem of containing the oil. So far they have not found any simple solutions, which means that the problem's size will continue to grow over the next few days.