Spill work force could be cut

The size of the work force cleaning up oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico and on its shores may shrink as oil disappears, BP’s incoming CEO said Friday, but he reaffirmed the company’s long-term commitment to the region.

At a Friday news conference in Biloxi, Miss., Robert Dudley said that his company is committed “to make good to restore the Gulf Coast.”

Dudley, who will replace BP CEO Tony Hayward on Oct. 1, also announced BP has hired James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration, as a special adviser to the company in the disaster response efforts.

BP’s Macondo well 40 miles off the Louisiana coast blew out April 20, destroying the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers and sending oil gushing into the Gulf for almost three months.

The oil fouled beaches and coastal marshes, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

But with the well capped for 15 days as of Friday, it’s unlikely southern Florida, the Florida Keys and the East Coast will see any of the remaining spilled oil, according to an analysis released Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As the oil continues to break up, changes in currents are keeping it in the central Gulf, the study says.

“The light sheen remaining on the Gulf’s surface will continue to biodegrade and disperse, but will not travel far,” said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco in a statement.

‘Static kill’ delay

The effort to seal the well for good, however, may be delayed by a day or so.

BP plans a procedure called a “static kill” — pumping mud into the well through the system of pipes and valves on the wellhead to force oil back down into the reservoir more than two miles beneath the Gulf seafloor.

Before beginning that procedure, however, BP intends to complete the pipe-like casing in one of the relief wells it’s drilling to intercept the Macondo near the reservoir and seal it there, too.

That process was delayed for a day because debris accumulated in the relief wellbore after the drilling rig evacuated the site a week ago ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who commands the federal spill response, said in a briefing that the debris wasn’t a major obstacle but it means crews won’t complete the casing until Sunday. That means the static kill won’t start until Tuesday, a day later than projected.

Once the static kill is completed, BP will continue drilling the relief well and could intercept the bottom of the Macondo by Aug. 11 or 12 based on current timelimes, said BP Vice President Kent Wells. Sealing it permanently with cement could take up to two weeks after that.

Earlier in the week Allen said it was getting harder for skimmers to find large areas of oil on the surface to collect. But on Friday he emphasized that it would be premature to declare the spill over.

“We should not be writing any obituary for this event until the well is completely sealed, until we have no more oil on the surface of the water, until we understand where all the oil has gone to, until the beaches are clean, until state and local officials agree that the beaches are clean and we have a way to go back if we need to find oil that reoccurs,” he said.

‘Oil budget’ prepared

A scientific team is working to prepare an “oil budget” to calculate how much oil has been released and how much has been skimmed, burned, dispersed or evaporated, Allen said. The team will attempt to assess where all the oil has gone to make sure it is accounted for. This will allow the Coast Guard to see where oil needs to be recovered and also help with assessments of long-term ecological effects.

The spill led to a government moratorium on new drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf, and BP announced Friday that it is establishing a $100 million fund to help rig workers affected by the ban.

The Rig Worker Assistance Fund will be administered through a supporting organization of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the company said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

tom.fowler@chron.com sharon.hong@chron.com