Brazilian police investigate offshore oil spill

November 17, 2011 - 4:00 PM

SAO PAULO (AP) — The Brazilian Federal Police on Thursday began investigating an oil spill in an offshore field operated by Chevron Corp., a leak that an environmental group alleges is far bigger than the company has stated.

Fabio Scliar, head of the Federal Police department's environmental affairs division, told government news service Agencia Brasil that his division began to look into the causes and extent of the spill.

Globo TV's G1 website quoted Scliar as saying that technicians he sent to the offshore field came back with information that conflicted with that provided by Chevron.

He said they only saw one ship being used in the cleanup while Chevron has said there were 18 being used on a rotating basis. Without going into details he said there was also conflicting information regarding the size of the leak.

A request for an interview emailed by The Associated Press to the Federal Police went unanswered.

Chevron has said that the oil spill was between 400 and 650 barrels of oil, but that the company had contained the leak. The company said in a Thursday statement that "cementing operations are taking place as part of ... well plugging activities."

Chevron said the oil on the ocean surface had "substantially dissipated" and that the slick was down to "less than 65 barrels."

The drilling contractor for the well is Transocean — the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that oil company BP was leasing at the time of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the largest in U.S. history.

Ana Carolina Oliveira, a spokeswoman for Brazil's oil regulator, the National Petroleum Agency, said an estimated 1,000 barrels had leaked to the surface and that it was still unclear if the leak was contained.

"We should know by Friday," she said.

SkyTruth, a nonprofit group that uses satellite imagery to detect environmental problems, said on its website the oil spill extended 918 square miles (2,379 square kilometers) and that the spill rate as of Tuesday was up to at least 3,738 barrels per day.

Chevron said in its statement that it "continues to fully inform and work with Brazilian government agencies and industry partners on all aspects of this matter."

"If Chevron is not doing what it should (to contain the spill) it will be severely punished," Mines and Energy Minister Edison Lobao said Thursday.

Curt Trennepohl, the president of Brazil's environmental protection agency, Ibama, said in a statement that Chevron has not omitted any information and has implemented all the emergency procedures required.

In an indication that the oil spill has not been completely stanched he said, "The company will be fined when the spill is contained because the value of the fine is proportional to the environmental damage caused."

The well is part of the Chevron-operated Frade project, located 3,800 feet (1,200 meters) underwater, 230 miles (370 kilometers) off the northeastern coast of Rio de Janeiro state.

The agency said that ships in the area were working to disperse the oil and move it away from the Brazilian shore and that their efforts were being aided by prevailing weather conditions.

In the past few years, Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras and others made massive offshore oil discoveries thought to hold at least 50 billion barrels of oil, making them the biggest finds in the Western hemisphere in 30 years.

There has been virtually no debate in Brazil about the dangers drilling offshore poses, unlike in the U.S., where debate about the dangers of drilling were pitched even before last year's spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Brazilian politicians are in a fierce battle to decide how to divide up the future oil royalties among states, with little talk about the potentially damaging effects of drilling.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.