Spill relief well weeks away, hurricane hinders cleanup

A relief well that might divert the gushing Gulf of Mexico oil leak is still weeks from completion, a top United States official said on Wednesday, as the season’s first Atlantic hurricane disrupted cleanup efforts.

Hurricane Alex was delaying BP Plc’s plans to boost containment capacity at its leaking undersea well and threatening to push more oil-polluted water onto US shores.

A relief well, one of two being drilled, is less than 330m from its target but will still take several weeks to reach the spewing oil pipe, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the country’s lawmakers.

Speaking at a House of Representatives Resources Committee hearing, Salazar said the relief well was now just over 17 000 feet deep and it had a target depth of almost 18 000 feet.

The Gulf oil spill disaster is in its 72nd day, with environmental and economic costs to tourism, wildlife, fishing and other industries mounting and the future of BP, the London-based energy giant, far from clear.

Local residents are braced for heavy rains and flooding from Alex, which strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane late on Tuesday and could become a more powerful Category 2 on Wednesday. The storm was on track to make landfall near the Texas-Mexico border late on Wednesday.

International help
With strong winds, waves as high as 4m and heavy rains on the way, officials said controlled burns of oil on the ocean, flights spraying dispersant chemicals and booming operations were on hold.

The State Department said it would accept offers of help from a dozen countries and international agencies to contain and clean up the spill, including two high-speed skimmers and a fire containment boom from Japan.

A US Senate committee voted on Wednesday to eliminate limits on liability that oil companies would face for damages stemming from offshore spills like the one in the Gulf.

Currently, companies enjoy a $75-million cap for compensating local communities for economic losses and for cleaning up environmental damage, although BP has agreed to a special $20-billion compensation fund.

BP shares were up 3% in early New York trade on Wednesday after sharp gains earlier in London, where traders citing renewed talk that it could encourage a bid from ExxonMobil.—Reuters

(Additional reporting by Cyntia Barrera Diaz in Mexico City, Ernest Scheyder in Bay Baptiste, Louisiana, Leigh Coleman in Ocean Springs, Mississippi; Joshua Schneyer and Ryan Vlastelica in New York; writing by Ros Krasny and Jerry Norton; Editing by Paul Simao)

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