7/2/10 With controlled burns temporarily suspended on account of tempestuous weather, Gulf waters have had a reprieve lately from the roaring fires and billowing smoke plumes that, since late April, have come to overwhelm the oily seascape.

But as fire teams prepare to resume their work, the burning and flaring of oil is attracting growing criticism from environmentalists who worry about the hazards it poses to wildlife and Gulf Coast communities. Some say that BP isn't investing enough energy in other methods of cleaning up the roughly 2.2 million to 4.2 million barrels of oil that have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico as of June 29, according to the latest estimates...

Critics also note burning can imperil wildlife. Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against BP under the Clean Water Act, charging the company with burning endangered sea turtles alive in the course of its cleanup efforts. In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service announced it would place a NOAA observer with each fire team to inspect oil corrals before they are ignited...

Some oil is being burned using another method: flaring.

Only one of the two rigs collecting oil from the leaking well has the capacity to process and store the crude oil it captures. That ship, the Discoverer Enterprise, is connected to a cap that contains some of the gushing crude and feeds it to the rig through a riser. The Enterprise is able to isolate and burn the gas, store the oil, and pump the leftover water back into the ocean.

Its cohort, the Q4000, can't process or store the crude oil it collects. So the vessel burns both oil and gas through an "EverGreen" burner, said to provide a relatively clean burn by eliminating visible smoke emissions. Since it went into operation on June 16, the Q4000 has burned an average of 8,556 barrels of oil per day, totaling 119,780 barrels as of June 29 -- about half the oil burned thus far.

Burning oil aboard the Q4000 isn't harmless, says Subra, but it's far preferable to burning it off the water's surface. Gas flaring, meanwhile, is a waste of potentially usable energy, and further burdens the atmosphere with unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, according to NOAA.

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