Sun Herald: Ivan leaves a mess in the Gulf for oil companies: “The Shell pipeline that broke was the most serious spill, with over 200,000 gallons of oil oozing out, said Eric Whipple, a senior chief with the U.S. Coast Guard.” (ShellNews.net)
Posted Oct 08 2004
NEW ORLEANS - Hurricane Ivan's path through fields of oil rigs and a spaghetti-like network of pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico left a mess: Rigs ripped from the sea floor, pipelines spewing oil into the murky Gulf and shut-down production that clobbered oil prices.
Three weeks since Ivan slammed into the Gulf Coast, a picture of severe damage to offshore operations is coming into focus.
Oil prices are hitting $53 a barrel, crews have scrambled to clean up costly oil spills near bird wildlife refuges on the Louisiana coast and the recovery has been hampered by a shortage of contractors to recover lost rigs and inspect thousands of miles of pipelines for cracks.
The monster storm also highlighted the offshore industry's vulnerabilities to the threat of busier hurricane seasons and the effect that that could have on oil prices.
Nearly 30 percent of the nation's energy needs travels through Louisiana. With pipelines shut down, oil tankers backed up at Louisiana ports, and rough seas continuing to toss the Gulf, analysts blamed the spike in oil prices largely on the slowdown in the Gulf.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service has ordered oil and pipeline companies to survey rigs and pipelines for any cracks that could leak. Inspections may go on for weeks.
Cracked pipelines have caused at least nine leaks near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Wildlife officials were worried that more leaks could be discovered.
"What will happen when other oil companies turn on their pipelines?" asked Buddy Goatcher, a contaminants specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Nearly 60 percent of the 110,000-acre Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area near the mouth of the river was damaged by an oil spill from a Shell Oil Co. pipeline leak, said Todd Baker, the area's state supervisor.
The adjacent Delta-Breton National Wildlife Refuge, another important chunk of marsh where geese and ducks flock during winter, was contaminated by two other spills.
The Shell pipeline that broke was the most serious spill, with over 200,000 gallons of oil oozing out, said Eric Whipple, a senior chief with the U.S. Coast Guard. By Thursday, the leak had been contained and the cleanup was over, he said.
The oil slick washed over two large sand bars where thousands of pelicans, terns, seagulls and other birds were concentrated after Ivan's storm surge swamped nearby barrier islands - the birds' other favorite spots.
For several days, wildlife officials used pyrotechnics, air boats and helicopters to scare the flocks of birds off the sand bars. They were unable to remove about 350 birds before oil covered the sand bars. About 150 were heavily covered in oil and would likely die, said Charlie Hebert, an oil spill response coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We watched the oil go past them on a helicopter, there was nothing we could do about them," he said.
The other birds were not as badly covered and had a better chance of survival. An unknown number of birds died and wildlife officials were trying to track down and clean off contaminated birds.
The oily sheen that washed into the wildlife refuges could kill grasses loved by the approximately million geese and ducks that fly down there every winter.
It will be weeks before federal officials get a better idea of the extent of the damage and can estimate the amount of fuel that may have leaked into the Gulf. There was an unknown number of leaks farther offshore.
The pipeline leaks reminded Louisianans about the fragile nature of their coastline, sinking and disappearing because of sea level rise and human activities like oil and gas drilling, canal digging and the building of levees to keep floods out.
The state has lost about 1,900 square miles of coast - an area roughly the size of Delaware - since 1932.
"The more coast we lose in Louisiana makes the oil and gas infrastructure more vulnerable. If Hurricane Ivan had hit us more directly it would have done a lot more damage to the oil and gas infrastructure and compromised our national energy supply even more," said Edward Landgraf, an environmental coordinator with the Shell Pipeline Co.
Maurice Coman, chairman of the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, questioned why the public was not notified about the oil spills. No public announcement was made of the large spill at Pass-A-Loutre or other spills.
"Why wasn't the public informed of this? What else don't we know?" Coman asked.
Louisiana, which has about 30,000 miles of pipeline, has a good track record for pipeline leaks, said Don Davis, a Louisiana State University research professor who maps the network of pipelines, many of them installed a century ago and unchartered.
"The industry's done a very good job," he said. "When hurricanes come through there is anecdotal evidence of these pipelines being moved off their rights of way. It's an enormous force. Most of what you do is over-engineer because of those forces."