BP 'Overwhelmed' by Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, Say Federal Officials

Oil hits Louisiana shore and federal government increases its response.

April 28, 2010, 11:37 AM

April 30, 2010 — -- As the first spilled oil from the Gulf of Mexico began to soil the marshes of southern Louisiana today, federal and state officials took shots at BP Oil, the company operating the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig when it exploded and burned last week, creating a massive environmental disaster.

"We're concerned that BP's current resources are not adequate to the challenge," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, said at an afternoon briefing with top officials from the Obama administration. "We have encouraged BP strongly to seek even more assistance from the federal government because I do think this response could overwhelm their capabilities."

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar joined in. "BP has a massive spill for which they are responsible," he said. "We cannot rest and we will not rest until BP seals the wellhead and cleans up every drop of oil."

Oil from the wrecked offshore drilling platform began to coat birds and foul coastal marshes today, threatening to create America's worst environmental crisis in two decades.

BP, for its part, said it will fully compensate all those affected by the spill. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, estimated that up to 210,000 gallons of oil a day are pouring from the damaged wellhead, 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and 50 miles from the Louisiana coast.

"We are taking full responsibility for the spill and we will clean it up and where people can present legitimate claims for damages we will honor them. We are going to be very, very aggressive in all of that," said the company's CEO, Tony Hayward, according to Reuters.

At the Pentagon, the Defense Department said it would lend two C-130 cargo planes that are specially equipped to spray dispersant or other chemicals on the oil slick. The planes can cover 250 acres of the Gulf of Mexico per flight, and are capable of three flights a day.

Louisiana is home to 40 percent of the United States' wetlands, and the oil, which began began washing ashore near the mouth of the Mississippi River Thursday night, now threatens some 400 species of animals, from shrimp to pelicans to river otters.

President Obama remained in Washington today while the secretaries of Interior and Homeland Security, along with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, surveyed the damage. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs left open the possibility of a later presidential visit to assess the spreading oil spill.

It was less than a month ago that the administration announced it would open new parts of the continental shelf to offshore oil drilling. Last week's accident is a major setback for the White House and the oil companies that hoped to profit from the new policy.

The White House announced today that there will be no new offshore drilling until there is an "adequate review" of what happened.

"I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security," said President Obama in a statement from the Rose Garden, "but I've always said it must be done responsibly, for the safety of our workers and our environment."

On ABC's "Good Morning America" today, White House senior adviser David Axelrod defended the administration's stance, but said it would need a fresh look in light of last week's disaster.

"No additional drilling has been authorized and none will, until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here," Axelrod told ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

If NOAA's estimate is right, the Deepwater Horizon wreck will take approximately 55 days to leak as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which released a total of 11 million gallons, according to Nancy Kinner, the co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Already, at least two dozen lawsuits have been filed in the aftermath of the accident -- many of them naming Halliburton, Inc., the giant oil-services company that was helping pour cement around the pipe BP was drilling when the rig exploded.

The price of oil on commodities markets briefly edged over $86 a barrel today before settling a bit lower. Analysts said thus far prices were not greatly affected by the Deepwater Horizon accident because shipping and delivery of oil continue. But that's likely to change.

"Even if you're not along the Gulf Coast, eventually prices will creep up," said Kevin Kerr, an oil analyst at Kerr Trading International in Connecticut. "Certainly the states that have the highest gas taxes will see the biggest increase. California, New Jersey, Chicago, these states will suffer the most."

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

The response team has been using chemical dispersants and flotation booms to break the oil up and corral it. On Wednesday it experimented with a controlled burn of part of the slick. But the Coast Guard said because of rough weather including high winds the skimming and controlled fires would be impossible today. It reported high winds and seas of six to seven feet.

BP says it is pressing ahead with a plan to collect the leaking oil with a dome placed over the well. It is also working to drill a relief well to stop the flow, though it concedes that could take months.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said she was not impressed: "It is clear that after several unsuccessful attempts to secure the source of the leak, it is time for BP to supplement their current mobilization, as the slick of oil moves toward shore," she said this afternoon at a briefing in Louisiana. She and other officials said BP needs to talk to competing oil companies to come up with new ideas.

Today Florida's Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency for four counties on the Florida panhandle.

Louisiana's Gov. Jindal had declared a state of emergency yesterday, asking for federal help to pay for use of National Guard troops. Late today the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had agreed to pick up the tab.

The White House said 1,900 people were at work to protect the shoreline, and 217,000 feet of flotation booms have been deployed as of today to corral the floating oil. It said 75 response vessels were on site, including skimmers, tugs, and barges.

The liberal group MoveOn.org used the accident to call on President Obama to back off his call for new offshore drilling.

"Today, people all across the Gulf Coast can tell you why it's a terrible idea," the group's organizers said in an e-mail to members. "Instead of drill, baby, drill they're looking at spill, baby, spill."

Conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, Oceana and the Alaska Wilderness League joined in urging a halt to drilling.

"Taking new drilling off the table will allow the Obama Administration and Congress to focus their resources on developing the clean energy future that will stimulate the U.S. economy while helping to address climate change," said Oceana in a statement. "But most importantly, this action will help to prevent future oil accidents from taking more lives and destroying coastal economies and ocean ecosystems."

One ray of hope is that about 30 percent of an oil slick usually evaporates in the strong southern sun, and microbes and waves take care of another large portion.

"Mother nature does a much better job at cleaning up than we do of picking up," said Ed Levine, an oceanographer with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, operated by BP Oil and owned by Transocean Ltd., exploded and started burning April 20. Eleven rig workers were never found and are presumed to have died.

Oil from the area is called light sweet crude, but Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental science at Louisiana State University, said the name is deceptive. It contains heavy compounds, called asphaltenes, that do not burn easily or evaporate, even in the warm climate off Louisiana.

"When you've got a spill like this," said Overton, "there are three things you can do. You can burn it, scoop it up out of the water, or use chemical dispersants to break it up. This oil is not particularly good with any of those three."

"With light crude," he said, "you could burn most of it -- 70 or 80 percent. With heavy crude, I don't know. I'm not optimistic."

ABC News Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Additional reporting by ABC's Jay Shaylor and Luis Martinez.

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