Worsening Gulf oil spill overwhelming Coast Guard

McClatchy NewspapersMay 18, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill is growing despite BP's effort to siphon some of the spewing crude from its ruptured deepwater well, the U.S. Coast Guard official leading the cleanup warned Tuesday.

BP doubled its estimate of the amount of crude being captured by a mile-long recovery tube to 2,000 barrels per day — but what percentage of the spill that is remains uncertain. BP has said it thinks that 5,000 barrels of crude a day are leaking from the well, but some scientists have said the figure could be 10 times greater or more, and a video made public Tuesday after the tube was placed inside the broken pipe shows clouds of crude oil still billowing into the sea.

Another video provided the first public view of a second leak much nearer the runaway well's failed blowout preventer spewing oil, too. A BP robot took that video on Saturday and Sunday.

The Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Thad Allen, said that despite the siphoning, the spilled oil is spreading and now stretches from western Louisiana to Florida's Key West. The extent of the spill was straining even the substantial resources deployed for one of the worst ecological disasters in recent history, he said.

Allen said the approximately 20,000 people now working to prevent the spill from reaching land were struggling to deal with an environmental threat that he called "omni-directional and almost indeterminate" in size. He said federal disaster plans had been formulated to deal with far more localized spills.

"We're dealing with something that's more complicated than any spill I've ever dealt with," Allen told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "The national system did not contemplate that we would have to do all of this at once."

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration widened its no-fishing zone to cover 19 percent of the Gulf, or 45,728 square miles, and its head, Jane Lubchenco, told a news conference that "a light tendril of oil" is spreading eastward and approaching the loop current, a powerful warm-water current that could drag the oil around Florida and into the Gulf Stream that flows up the Atlantic coast.

Lubchenco said the current would dilute much of the oil into thin strips, and some scientists have warned that these strips could cause major damage to the extensive coral reefs that hug Florida's southern coastline.

The worsening forecasts came as lawmakers turned up the heat on oil company executives for their response to the spill, which began on April 20 when BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank two days later into the waters off Louisiana.

BP released the new videos in response to requests from Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Barbara Boxer of California, both Democrats.

"Its my worst nightmare apparently becoming a reality," said Nelson, who brought to the committee hearing maps showing the potential spread of oil along the Atlantic coastline within 10 days.

Under sharp questioning from Nelson and other lawmakers, Lamar McKay, the head of BP America, said the company was focused on sealing off the spill but couldn't offer estimates of how much oil was flowing into the ocean.

The company said it would employ a new method in about a week to inject heavy fluids into the well to stanch the flow of oil and gas, followed by cement to close off the rupture — a procedure known as "top kill."

In a separate hearing, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that failures at his department's Minerals Management Service could have played a role in the accident.

Salazar, appearing before Congress for the first time since the spill, said the Obama administration was committed to dividing the MMS into two agencies — one to inspect oil rigs and enforce safety and another to oversee offshore drilling leases and collect royalties. The agency has been roundly criticized for what President Barack Obama has called a "cozy relationship" with oil companies it was supposed to regulate

"We need to clean up that house," Salazar said.

While some lawmakers criticized the Obama administration for what they described as a slow response to the disaster, the White House accused congressional Republicans of blocking legislation that would raise the limits on liability payments faced by oil companies from $75 million to $10 billion. BP has said it won't limit payments to the $75 million and will pay the full amount of "valid claims, which could reach into the billions.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, blocked a voice vote on the legislation because she said it would hurt small oil companies' ability to drill offshore.

In a statement, Obama said, "This maneuver threatens to leave taxpayers, rather than the oil companies, on the hook for future disasters like the BP oil spill."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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