Gulf Oil Spill: Five Issues to Watch

Charlie Neibergall / AP

With Tropical Storm Bonnie rolling over the east coast of Florida and moving toward the Gulf of Mexico, BP and the Coast Guard have evacuated their flotilla of ships and drilling rigs from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The storm will likely delay work to permanently kill the gusher for 10 to 14 days, but Unified Command has decided to leave the well cap in place. They expect the cap to hold back the oil as the storm passes. But even if no more oil leaks, the problems connected to the catastrophe are far from solved. Here are five issues to watch.

1. The Permanent Fix

Once operations at the well site begin again, BP will start its latest attempt to plug the well from the top down, the so-called static kill, which includes pumping mud into the now-capped well, providing a more secure shield to hold down the rising oil. Then Unified Command plans to complete the relief well, still the best option to permanently stop the flow. Drilling operators must first thread a final length of casing down the relief well to solidify it before starting the static kill, otherwise an underground leak from the problem well could damage the relief well (at the moment, the two wells are only four to five feet apart).

Adm. Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard commander in charge of the government's response, has maintained a mid-August deadline for completing the relief well and permanently killing the leak, despite hints that the process might be ahead of schedule. It's unclear how the tropical storm might change that timeline. Allen has also pressed BP to come up with a backup plan if pumping mud through the relief well is unsuccessful. The leading idea so far appears to be one Allen mentioned on July 8: reopening an already-tapped oil reservoir nearby and diverting the leaking oil back into one of those empty wells.

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2. The Cleanup

Eventually, the oil will stop leaking and allow Gulf Coast communities to begin slogging through the long-term impacts of the disaster. Armies of volunteers and contractors have already toiled along an estimated 626 miles of oiled coastline, and that work will continue for weeks and probably months after the oil stops leaking. Some communities saw six weeks or more lag time between the April 20 explosion and oil washing ashore, so local responders are planning to deal with oil hitting land well into the fall.

When the oil finally stops staining the coastline, Gulf Coasters will again turn to BP to see what sort of restoration the company will fund, then likely supplement it with their own efforts. Along Louisiana's coast, toxic oil is killing birds and threatening the breeding grounds of local fisheries, says Kerry St. Pe', program director of the Barataria-Terrbone National Estuary Program. For that wildlife to recover, workers will have to continue to collect oil, keeping it out of the sediment where it can kill the roots of marsh grasses and cause habitat-killing erosion. As long as oil doesn't touch their roots, "these plants can survive a good bit of oiling," St. Pe' said. "At all costs, you want to save the habitats."

In parts of Florida and Alabama, weathered oil has sat on beaches long enough for waves to pound it deep into the sand, leaving communities to wonder whether cleaning the buried oil is worth the trouble. "We've got pretty, white quartz beaches. We don't want to take an excavator out there and destroy the beach because that might cause more harm," said Leigh Anne Ryals, a civil engineer and director of emergency management in Baldwin County, Ala.

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BP has said it will keep working on the cleanup as long as it takes. After months dealing with an often slow and frustrating response, Gulf Coast locals will believe that when they see it.

3. The Investigation

What went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon? The list of answers is too long list here. The latest revelation, in The New York Times on Thursday, reveals that workers for Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, raised safety concerns before the April 20 explosion. Worse, the rig's blowout preventer—the undersea device that failed to seal the busted well—had not been fully inspected since 2000, the Times reported. The confidential company reports cited in that article will also likely be sought by federal investigators as they probe the disaster and decide whether to file criminal charges. The results of the investigation will have huge implications for the deepwater oil-drilling industry, which is already stepping up congressional lobbying on a range of issues, from new safety regulations to changes regarding the way companies and the federal government respond to spills.

4. The Claims

Kenneth Feinberg, the claims czar chosen by the Obama administration and BP to dole out $20 billion or more in reparations, is touring the gulf region urging victims of the disaster to apply for compensation. Nothing is binding, Feinberg says, until the claimant accepts a check. "I'll be more generous than any court," he adds.

What remains unclear is what makes a legitimate claim. One clear signal is that documentation will be king. A beachfront hotel will have to prove it lost business with papers showing a year-on-year decline in sales. Fishermen without tax returns, pay stubs, or other records of their usually cash business will have a harder time getting reimbursement. Municipalities are documenting their lost tax revenues. Some claims will be tougher than others: the St. Joe Company, a massive real-estate owner in northwest Florida, has lost about $1 billion of its market value since the April 20 explosion. If the company sought compensation, would BP be liable? For now, Feinberg says he wants a picture of the "universe" of claims before he definitively answers those questions. So far, BP has reportedly paid less than half the claims filed, doling out about $168 million.

5. The Weather

The worst fear of many watching the spill has been a severe storm that shuts down efforts to kill the gusher and sends surging, oil-contaminated water to parts of the shoreline it might not have otherwise reached. Even the threat of weather forces the hand of responders: already this week in Florida and Alabama, officials have watched Unified Command take back thousands of feet of boom (the floating material used to contain oil) for fear that surging waves might tangle the boom or rip it from its anchors and drag it along sensitive shoreline. Unified Command is planning to put the boom back, but Dino Vilani, Okaloosa County, Fla.'s emergency manager, can't help but express the sort of skepticism many in the gulf are feeling these days. "I hope they don't use the storm scenario as an exit strategy," he said. "We'll see what happens."

Editor's Note: This story was updated on July 23, 2010.

Gulf Oil Spill: Five Issues to Watch | U.S.