June 29, 2010

Alex Should Reach Hurricane Strength Today

Tropical Storm Alex is forecast to reach hurricane strength on Tuesday as it moves further into the Gulf waters near southern Texas, bringing high winds and large waves that will likely hinder efforts to contain the BP oil spill.

Alex had maximum sustained winds near 65 mph as of early Tuesday morning, and is projected to travel west and south of the spill.  However, the storm's outer wind field might push the oil farther inland and slow operations in the area.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, President Obama's national incident commander for the spill, warned that rough weather could delay oil recovery operations for the largest oil spill in U.S. history for up to two weeks.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, predicted the storm would grow into a hurricane some time Tuesday, and would likely make landfall Wednesday night.  

As of Tuesday morning, Alex had tropical storm-force winds extending up to 80 miles from the storm's center, which is now 475 miles southeast of Brownsville, Texas and moving north-northwest at 8 mph.  

The center said rain from the storm could reach Veracruz, Mexico and the border state of Tamaulipas by Tuesday evening or Wednesday.

A hurricane warning was issued for the Texas coast from Baffin Bay, 100 miles south to the mouth of the Rio Grande River and on a further 225 miles to La Cruz, Mexico, AP reported. 

Some cities in the area distributed sandbags and warned residents to make preparations as workers along the South Texas coast prepared emergency shelters, cleared drainage ditches, filled sandbags and positioned water pumps.

When Alex became the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, authorities became immediately concerned about the potential impact on efforts to contain the BP spill, which is now in its 71st day with no firm end in sight. 

A cap is currently in place over the broken well to direct some of the leaking oil to a surface ship, where it is collected or burned.

London-based BP is working to drill a pair of relief wells deep below the ocean floor, but these are not expected to be in place until August.  The relief wells are considered the best plan to stop the leak.

The federal government estimates that 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil per day are spilling out from the blown-out well, but the current containment system can only handle up to 28,000 barrels per day.

A BP spokesman said Monday that plans to move a third containment vessel to the site could be delayed by a week or so due to high waves associated with Alex.  

The additional vessel would raise the containment capacity to 53,000 barrels per day, said BP senior vice president Kent Wells.

The drilling of the relief wells will continue "unless, unfortunately, a storm heads directly our way," Wells told Reuters.

Shares of the BP's stock are now at 14-year lows as the economic and ecological costs of the spill continue to climb.  The New York Federal Reserve is looking into potential systemic risks posed by the firm.

Meanwhile, members of the public with ideas on how to fix the spill may soon be able to enter a contest sponsored by the X Prize Foundation, where winning solutions on how to clean up the Gulf coast shorelines and contaminated open waters could earn millions of dollars.

Francis Beland, vice president for the non-profit foundation, said the organization is currently considering sponsoring the contest, and has already received 35,000 unsolicited ideas for containing and cleaning up the spill.

At a special conference about the leak on Monday, Beland said X Prize Foundation is seeking public input on how to manage such a contest.

The group, which has sponsored similar contests in the past for space, fuel-efficient vehicles and gene mapping, must still raise the award money -- typically $10 million or more.


Image Caption: Tropical Storm Alex nearing landfall on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: NASA/ The MODIS Rapid Response System


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