Calm U.S. Gulf weather aids spill fight, for now

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By Matthew Bigg | May 6, 2010 1:19 AM EST

Oil spill workers raced against time in the Gulf of Mexico, hoping to seize on at least one more day of calm in their fight to contain a huge and growing slick before winds turn against them.

Cleanup crews along the U.S. shore have had a few days' reprieve as the slow-moving slick, from oil spewing from a damaged deep-water well, remained parked in waters that for now are placid.

"The winds are helpful to us, but on Thursday they begin to be less helpful," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said in New Orleans.

BP, under heavy pressure in Washington since a deadly April 20 rig explosion triggered the breach in its well, has scrambled to plug the gushing undersea leak threatening coastal fishing and tourism and reshaping the U.S. political debate on offshore drilling.

BP shares recovered on Tuesday, gaining 0.6 percent, after almost two weeks of drops that wiped more than $32 billion from the company's market value. The STOXX Europe 600 Oil and Gas index rose 0.3 percent on Tuesday.

U.S. oil prices tumbled 4 percent to $82.44 a barrel as traders played down the threat to production and shipping.

The company expects a giant steel containment device, fabricated in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, and designed to be placed over the biggest of three leaks on the seabed, to be shipped out toward the site on Wednesday and to be operating in the next six days.

BP has also started drilling a relief well, but that could take two or three months to complete.

On Tuesday, as part of the biggest oil-containment operations attempted, nearly 200 boats tackled the slick by laying down and repairing miles of boom lines along Gulf shores. The slick is estimated to be at least 130 miles by 70 miles in size.

At the Joint Information Center in Roberts, Louisiana, Coast Guard Petty Officer Matthew Schofield said there had been no reports of thick oil on shore.

Environmental regulators reported a "first sighting" of slick near the Chandeleur Islands, three narrow islands off the southeast coast of Louisiana, on Tuesday.

Local officials worried that yet another potential swing in wind direction could threaten the Chandeleurs.

POLITICAL IMPACT

The spill forced President Barack Obama to suspend plans to expand offshore oil drilling, unveiled last month partly to woo Republican support for climate legislation.

The leak, still weeks or months away from being stopped, threatens to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe in Alaska, the worst U.S. oil spill.

Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are also threatened by the leak that is discharging crude at a rate estimated at more than 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) a day.

If the slick contacts the so-called Loop sea current, the oily sheen could eventually be carried to Miami in south Florida, or as far as North Carolina's barrier islands, Robert Weisberg, a physical oceanographer at the University of South Florida, warned.

"Exactly when the oil will enter the Loop Current at the surface is unknown, but it appears to be imminent," Weisberg said, referring to the prevailing current in the Gulf.

Asked about the possibility, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the agency had no forecast of this in its 72-hour projection forecast window.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is scheduled to visit wildlife refuges in Alabama and Louisiana on Wednesday as part of an effort by the Obama administration to show it is focused on the disaster and keeping the pressure on BP following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 workers and started the flow of oil into the sea.

The White House is planning to set up an office in the region and was starting daily conference calls, said Bill Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, which covers the southern tip of Louisiana. It fears a direct hit.

"This (the slick) is something that is going to cause mental anguish. It is causing it to me because I truly don't know what to do," he told fishermen in Pointe-a-la-Hache, a tiny village on the bank of the Mississippi River. "But we are going to see it through. We are going to make it," he said.

The political debate over the environmental impact of offshore drilling was fueled by the spill. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, shot back at critics calling for the shutdown of drilling.

"They are absolutely wrong," she told CNN. Ending drilling is "not going to do anything to clean our environment, it's not going to do anything to create jobs -- it will lose jobs -- and it is not going to do anything to make America safe and energy-independent, and those are the three things we need to do."

(Additional reporting by Matt Daily in New York and Tom Bergin in London; Anna Driver and Chris Baltimore in Houston; Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Michael Peltier in Pensacola; and Richard Cowan in Washington; Writing by Jeffrey Jones, John Whitesides and Ros Krasny; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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