MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In the Gulf of Mexico, tropical storm Alex is threatening to becomea full-blown hurricane. It could threaten the coast of Texas or Mexico, but at this point it does not appear to be headed for the blown-out oil well off Louisiana. Even so, it's quite possible the storm could spawn 10 to 12-foot waves, and those waves could sweep across the Gulf and complicate efforts to control the spewing oil.
RICHARD HARRIS: Even though BP is collecting about 25,000 barrels of oil a day from the blown-out well, there's still plenty more oil surging into the sea. BP Vice President Kent Wells says this week, the company was hoping to run a pipe from the well up to another ship in order to double the oil-collection capacity.
Mr. KENT WELLS (Vice President, BP): Basically, we've got about three days of additional work to do. This is very - I'll call it kind of - precise work. A lot of it's done on the surface. And we require flat sea states to do that work.
HARRIS: And unfortunately, the seas are not flat. There's a big storm, Alex, way off to the west. It doesn't seem to be threatening the worksite with wind and rain, but it is roiling the surface of the sea for hundreds of miles.
Mr. WELLS: So it will create waves, and we expect over the next six or seven days that - sea height to go from the three to four feet, which they have been, up to perhaps 10, even 12 feet. And that will restrict our ability to do these operations.
HARRIS: Installing this new collection system could potentially be a big deal. If it operates near capacity, it could at long last reduce the torrent of oil to a much smaller trickle. But it's not looking hopeful for this week, as BP had hoped.
Mr. WELLS: Depending upon weather, we could see a six- to seven-day delay in bringing this next phase of our subsidy containment online.
HARRIS: And if the waves are rough enough, crews could even have to stop collecting oil with the drill-ship Enterprise, which right now is gathering more than half of the oil that's being salvaged from the damaged well.
In a news conference conducted over a speaker phone, National Incident Commander Thad Allen said the storm system is already affecting the movement of oil across the surface of the Gulf.
Mr. THAD ALLEN (Commander, National Incident): It was generally heading east.
HARRIS: In fact, people were bracing for it along the panhandle of Florida. But now it's turned more to the north instead.
Mr. ALLEN: We now see oil start entering Mississippi Sound and areas around Chandelier and Breton Sound. We're very concerned about that. And we're moving forces there as we speak.
HARRIS: Oil skimmers will eventually have to head for safety if the seas get too rough, and, at some point, nothing can protect the most vulnerable areas along the coast. If there's a full-blown storm surge with some future storm, that will push oil deep into the delicate marshes.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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