Tests start on ‘super skimmer’ for Gulf oil spill

A supertanker adapted to scoop up oil from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico began tests on Saturday amid a report that some major investors expect the energy giant to replace its top executives.

The vessel named A Whale and dubbed a “super skimmer” is operating just north of the blown out well as part of a two-day test watched by the US coastguard, said Bob Grantham, spokesperson for TMT Shipping Offshore, which owns the ship.

If all goes to plan TMT hopes to sign a clean-up contract for the ship, which can remove up to 500 000 barrels (21-million gallons) of oil and water mix from the sea surface a day, according to crew members.

Efforts by BP to contain the damage returned to normal after a hurricane and the British company said its oil-capture systems at its leaking well collected or burned off 25 290 barrels of oil during operations on Friday.

The storm passed through the spill area off the coast of Louisiana without doing major damage.

But the corporate fall-out from the worst offshore oil spill in US history appeared far from over.

The Financial Times newspaper reported BP investors expected to see a change in the company’s leadership, possibly once the leak is capped, with both chief executive Tony Hayward and chairperson Carl-Henric Svanberg in jeopardy.

“When this is over there will be a full investigation, and we would expect some action to replace the top team,” the British newspaper quoted a top 10 UK shareholder as saying in its Saturday edition.

Without steps to steady the ship, BP could become a takeover target of companies like ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell or PetroChina, the FT said, citing a source working on BP’s strategy. A BP spokesperson declined to comment.

BP’s market capitalisation has shrunk by about $100-billion and its shares have lost more than half their value since the spill began.

Company executives have been under intense pressure since an April 20 rig explosion killed 11 workers and unleashed the torrent of oil now threatening wildlife and the tourist and fishing industries in the Gulf region.

The Obama administration has also criticised the company’s response to the crisis, now in its 75th day.

The US Interior Department, one of the departments spearheading Washington’s response to the spill, could issue a revised offshore oil drilling moratorium for US waters in the coming week.

A federal court last week lifted a six-month drilling ban imposed by the Obama administration as a result of the spill. The new moratorium is expected to be more flexible and could be adjusted to allow drilling in certain subsea fields.

Whale sharks threatened
In a related development, a US presidential panel to probe the cause of the spill and recommend new rules to prevent future disasters will hold its first public meeting in New Orleans on July 12 and 13, its co-chairs said on Saturday.

The two-day meeting will “hear directly from the people of the Gulf Coast whose lives and livelihoods have been so profoundly affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon spill,” said Bob Graham, a former US Senator, and William Reilly, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in a statement.

The seven-member commission, which has six months to do its work, will also seek expert advice on “regulatory, technical, legal, scientific and risk-management issues to ensure that any offshore drilling is done safety,” they said.

The supertanker works by allowing polluted water to enter 12 horizontal slits near its port and starboard bow. The liquid then enters a series of tanks where the oil is decanted and then stored for later transfer to a separate vessel.

Test results are due on Monday, Grantham said, but crew members are confident of success because of a previous test off the coast of Portugal where the ship was fitted out and because the process follows established principles of physics.

The total amount of oil and water mix from the spill remains unknown but the ship could in theory greatly boost the amount being collected each day.

Apart from economic damage, the spill is seen as an environmental catastrophe for the Gulf coast. Whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea, may be the latest victims.

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this week that four of the polka-dotted creatures, stretching about 12m in length, had been spotted swimming in oily water in search of food.

Since whale sharks are filter feeders — scooping up plankton and small fish as they swim just beneath the surface — scientists are concerned they could be harmed or killed from swallowing large amounts of oil.

“The problem is that these are surface feeding animals and if they digest the oil they will sink and we will not know how many are dying,” said Dr Eric Hoffmayer of the University of Southern Mississippi.

“I don’t think there is any question we’re going to lose whale sharks to this oil spill. That’s why we need to tag these sharks so that we can determine how they are impacted by the oil,” Hoffmayer told Reuters on Friday. – Reuters

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