July 9, 2010

Russian Subs Could Potentially Cap Oil Leak

The captain of one of two Russian-owned submarines said that the vessels would be able to cap the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

The captain was speaking as two of the subs started a campaign of exploration at the bottom of Lake Baikal in Siberia.

He said that there was still time for the subs to help BP with the environmental disaster.

The subs are searching for gas hydrates on the bed of Baikal.  Hydrates are a potential alternative fuel source.

Yevgenii Chernyaev told BBC News that the problem had to be addressed at the highest level.

Two oval-shaped submersibles have recently started their third season of exploration in Baikal, which is the world's deepest lake.

Anatoly Sagalevich of Russia's Shirshov Institute of Oceanology told BBC News that he had an informal conversation with a BP representative asking if Mirs would be able to help stop the leak.

However, he said there was no official request and no real discussions about the situation.

A BP spokesman told BBC that the company had not had any formal contact with the Russians.

"We've had over 120,000 people come up with ideas," he said in an e-mail.

"We are looking through all of these to see which are viable. If [the Russians] want to contact us (or may have done so through some other channel), we can evaluate their idea."

Oil has been leaking from a damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in April.

Although BP says it is now able to gather about 10,000 barrels of oil a day, using a device that siphons oil up to surface ships, thousands of barrels of oil continue to gush daily from the ocean floor.

The U.S. administration has already called the oil spill the worst environmental disaster in history.

Chernyaev told BBC that his team had held numerous discussions about the oil spill in the Gulf and the Russians would be ready to help out, but only if it was done properly.

The captain underlined that the subs were probably the only deep-sea vessels in the world capable of stopping the leak.

"Our subs are unique. There are two of them and they can submerge and work simultaneously. Also, they are powerful enough to work with any other additional equipment."

"There are only four vessels in the world that can go down to 6,000m - the Mirs, French Nautile and Japanese Shinkai. The Mirs are known to be the best, and we have a very experienced team of specialists," he told BBC.

However, Chernyaev said that such an operation would have a chance of succeeding only if BP or the U.S. government asked the Russian government to join efforts to stop the leak.

"It should all be decided on the government level. Asking [Anatoly] Sagalevich [of Russia's Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, which owns the subs] to simply bring the Mirs over is nonsense. Even though we're able to go to much greater depths than where the damaged well is located, we wouldn't be able to do much on our own."

"We need a team of international specialists and we have to know all the details and probably even build a special device to attach to the subs, and all this needs time," Chernyaev told BBC.

He explained that the subs had already worked in much harsher conditions, such as the Arctic.

The submarine's pilot also added that the Russians were very surprised that BP and the U.S. government had not asked them for help from the beginning.

"And we would not refuse to help, even though for us it would be very complicated, especially right now, when we're already working on Baikal. But it doesn't look like anyone seriously wants our help," he added.

Chernyaev was one of the pilots on the first manned descent to the seabed under the geographic North Pole.  The expedition was widely reported as a bid to further Moscow's territorial claims in the Arctic.

The two submarines started their third season of exploration in Lake Baikal on July 1.  The teams found reserves of gas hydrates on the lake bed over the last two expeditions.

Baikal is the only freshwater basin where gas hydrates are found in its sediments.  Scientists say that the depth of the lake and extremely low temperatures of water near the lake bed is both help gas hydrates form at depths exceeding about 1,150 feet.

The current expedition aims to obtain important data about these findings.  It is also hopping to discover new life forms, which might be unique to the lake.

The lake holds one-fifth of the planet's fresh water and many unique species of plants and animals.

Image Courtesy L. Murphy/NOAA


On the Net: