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Ecological risk grows as Deepwater Horizon oil rig sinks in Gulf

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"This is already a serious accident, and if this crude is allowed to flow uncontrolled out of the well for days or weeks, the environmental impact could be really substantial," says Robert Bryce, an energy expert at the Manhattan Institute and author of "Power Hungry: The myths of 'green' energy and the real fuels of the future." "They now have to figure out how to stop the blowout from the well. There are a tremendous number of unknowns now."

Coast Guard officials estimated that up to 13,000 gallons of crude an hour was coming out of the exploratory hole 41 miles offshore of Plaquemines Parish, La. An early suggestion that damage would be minimal because the fire was consuming most of the fuel "does have the potential to change," BP official David Rainey told the New York Times.

A BP spokesman told reporters that contractors using remote-controlled submarines (ROVs) are on the scene attempting to plug the well pipe via something they called a "hot-stabbing" operation. Early efforts to plug the well were unsuccessful, BP reported.

The Coast Guard is also reporting that it is assembling environmental cleanup crews. "We are looking at dispersant options, and we have planes and vessels on standby, should it be necessary," Coast Guard spokeswoman Sue Kerver told the oil and gas industry newspaper Upstream.

The viscosity of the leaking crude could determine whether it floats to the top or becomes an underwater slick. A two-mile surface slick has been spotted flowing from the site, but it is not yet clear whether that originated from on-board diesel fuel or well oil.

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