WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will travel to the Gulf Coast on Sunday as a massive oil spill lurked just off the Louisiana shore and could spread to other Gulf Coast states in the next several days.
The well, 50 miles offshore in waters 5,000 feet deep, continued leaking more than 200,000 gallons of sweet crude oil a day, though some estimates were far higher.
"An exact estimation of what is coming out is impossible," said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, who Saturday was designated the national incident commander for the spill.
BP, which owns the well and is financially responsible for the cleanup, has asked for help from other oil companies. The Defense Department activated the Louisiana National Guard on Saturday.
There were no indications when the well would be plugged, and in a conference call with reporters, Allen cautioned that it could take 45 to 90 days to stop the flow of oil.
"We continue to adapt and are leaning forward for a worst case scenario," he said.
Though there were no reports of heavy oil yet reaching the environmentally-sensitive Louisiana coastline, which is still reeling from Hurricane Katrina five years ago, Allen said it was all but inevitable the spill will reach shore.
"There is enough oil out there it is logical to assume it will reach shore," Allen said. "The question is when or where."
Depending on the weather, Allen said Mississippi and Alabama could be "at risk" in the next 72 to 96 hours.
The weather, which remained stormy Saturday, will be a major factor in where the oil spill heads.
"Mother Nature has a vote," Allen said.
An explosion and fire ripped through the deep water drilling platform Deepwater Horizon on April 20, leaving 11 men missing and presumed dead. Two days later, the platform sank and oil was discovered leaking from the well head and the pipe that carries oil to the surface.
Though Allen offered no new information on the size of the oil slick or how much oil has leaked, there were concerns it could eventually rival that of the nation's largest spill — the 11 million gallons released when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.
The stretch of Louisiana coastline thought most at risk is filled with wetlands and marshes and wildlife ranging from birds to dolphins along with fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs are threatened.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 210,000 gallons a day are leaking into the Gulf. That would mean roughly 1.6 million gallons had so far escaped the from the well, but the number could be far higher.
By some estimates, the spill covers an area 130 miles long and 70 miles wide.
As a safety measure, production work on two oil platforms in the spill area was halted Saturday and another rig was evacuated as a precaution.
Specially equipped C-130 military aircraft, along with commercial aircraft, were dropping chemicals on the spill to disperse the oil. The military planes can spread dispersant on about 250 acres per flight and can make three flights a day.
"We will not rest until the leaks are stopped, the well is killed and the spill is cleaned up," said John Brennan, the assistant to the president for homeland security, who joined Allen on the telephone conference call.
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