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Environment

Oil Spill Update: A Tropical Storm, a Backup Plan, & Deliberately Flooding Farmland

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Hurricane predictors warned us this season could be a bad one, and could bring unknown consequences for the ongoing BP oil spill. We may soon find out what those consequences are, as Tropical Storm Alex moves toward the Gulf and may reach hurricane status today. More Delays Supposing Alex reaches the spill, it might not be all bad.

Waves churned up by Alex — as high as 12 feet — could help break up the patches of oil scattered across the sea. The higher-than-normal winds that radiate far from the storm also could help the crude evaporate faster. "The oil isn't in one solid sheet. It's all broken up into patches anyway. It will actually work to break those patches down," said Piers Chapman, chairman of the oceanography department at Texas A&M University [AP].

But while the storm conceivably could help in the long term, in the short term it might mean delays and frustration—skimming boats stuck in port because of dangerous waters, and perhaps all that containment boom proving ineffective in such turbulent seas. If responders have to remove the equipment and replace it later, that could waste a lot of time. Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard says he doesn't expect Alex to affect the relief well operations, though hurricanes can prove unpredictable. Backups for Backups Speaking of the relief wells, they're getting closer. The New York Times reports

that the first has drawn within 1,000 vertical feet of intercepting the well, and the second is right behind. But since the relief well was a backup plan to all the other efforts that failed, BP's Kent Wells says the company is now developing a backup to its backup, lest that fail as well.

The backup plan would involve continuing to collect the oil through several systems at the wellhead and pumping it through a subsea pipeline to an existing production platform at least several miles away. Mr. Wells said several platforms had been identified as possibilities, although no decisions had been made [The New York Times].

Wanted: Bird Habitat. Will Pay. While BP crafts another in its long line of possible solutions, the federal government came up with an answer of its own to the oiled bird problem: If they're running out of oil-free habitat, we'll just create more habitat. Under a program called the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service will pay farmers to flood some of their fields.

Landowners would be expected to flood fields and promote the growth of vegetation favored by migratory birds, or to enhance existing wetlands on their properties, for three to five years, said NRCS spokeswoman Chris Coulon. Rice fields and fish farms are particularly suited to the initiative [Los Angeles Times].

The government allocated $20 million for this, though we shall see just how many farmers want to take the money and flood out their land. Recent posts on the BP oil spill: 80beats: This Hurricane Season Looks Rough. What If One Hits the Oil Spill?

80beats: Is Louisiana's Oil-Blocking Sand Berm Project Doomed?

80beats: Will Methane Gas in Gulf Waters Create a Massive Dead Zone?

80beats: From Marsh Grass to Manatees: The Next Wave of Life Endangered by BP’s Oil

80beats: BP to Kevin Costner: We’ll Take 32 of Your Oil Clean-up Machines

Image: NASA, Tropical Storm Alex

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