Oil Spill Day 29: Slick Headed Toward Florida as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Faces Questions on Capitol Hill

Light oil may have already entered Gulf's loop current, NOAA says.

May 18, 2010— -- Oil from BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico may already be spreading toward Florida, government officials said today.

While the bulk of the oil remains close to the site of the leak off the coast of Louisiana, aerial surveys suggest that light oil is close to the so-called loop current in the gulf, or may have already reached it, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said in a conference call with reporters. The current could carry oil south to the Florida Keys and on to the Gulf Stream, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

The proximity of the light oil "indicates that oil is increasingly likely to become entrained, if it is not already," said Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator.

NOAA officials believe that the diluted oil carried by the current would pose a minimal risk to Florida and the East Coast, but there are signs that the spill could already be having an impact far from the site of the leak.

Tar Balls Found Today

In Key West, Florida, about 500 miles from where the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig collapsed, authorities have discovered 60 tar balls ranging between 3 to 8 inches in diameter, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Officials could not determine whether the tar balls came from the BP spill. They have been sent to a lab for analysis.

In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal completed a flyover of the Plaquemines Parish and found troubling signs of a growing ecological problem.

Deep in Louisiana's weblands near Pass a Loutre, Jindal said he saw heavy oil that could cause major damage to aquatic life and the seafood industry.

"This is the first time we've seen this much heavy oil this far into our wetlands," Jindal said at a press conference following the flyover, noting that more heavy oil is forecast to hit the wetlands in the coming days.

Government officials today recapped the impact of the spill on wildlife so far. Thirty-five oiled birds have been discovered, 23 of which were brought in dead. One hundred and fifty-six sea turtles and 12 bottlenose dolphins have been found dead, though necropsies do not show any external or internal signs of oil.

"This spill is significant, and in all likelihood will affect wildlife for years if not decades," said Rowan Gold, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Congress and White House Examine Government Response

Far from the oil in the gulf, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar faced tough questions on Capitol Hill today.

Salazar acknowledged government failures in relation to the spill, saying that his department's Minerals Management Service failed adequately to regulate the blowout preventers that could have prevented the disaster.

"I think that there is additional work that should have been done with respect to blowout prevention mechanisms," Salazar conceded.

In his first appearance before lawmakers since the drilling accident 29 days ago, the interior secretary promised to give officials who regulate offshore drilling "more tools, more resources, more independence and greater authority."

When asked whether another rig could have a similar problem, Salazar said that all rigs are inspected every 30 days, according to regulations.

But ABC's Jake Tapper reports that the requried monthly inspections do not always happen.

At the Deepwater Horizon site alone in the past five years, an entire year's worth of inspections did not happen. Of 60 required inspections, only 48 occurred, and that includes four missed inspections out of the 16 required since President Obama's inauguration.

That's evidence to some of a wider problem.

"It's plain that there's a long history here of a lax oversight role by the part of the Minerals Management Service," said Wesley Warren, Director of Programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

On Monday, one of the regulators who was charged with monitoring offshore oil programs in the gulf for more than a decade announced he would retire at the end of the month. Chris Oynes, associate administrator for the Minerals Management Service, is the first administration official to resign since the spill.

Presidential Commission to Investigate Spill

As Congress focuses on government failures, President Obama is promising to scrutinize the BP spill and its aftermath.

The president will sign an executive order to form a commission to investigate the cause of the spill, whether it could have been prevented and the government's response, senior administration officials said.

The seven-person presidential commission resembles the panels that followed the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident, and will include no current government employees or elected officials.

Siphon Shows Progress in Gulf

While debate continues in Washington, BP said today that it is successfully siphoning more oil from the leak. The company said it was collecting about 2,000 barrels of oil per day using a 4-inch tube, which is double the amount it could suck up when it started using the technique.

The siphon is the first technique that has worked at all after weeks of failed attempts to control the spill.

"We're very encouraged by this, but this doesn't stop the flow," said Doug Settles, BP's chief operating officer.

BP said it would continue to increase the amount of oil it collects through the tube, even as it prepares a "top kill" operation to attempt to completely plug the leak sometime next week.

Still, as of now, oil continues to seep into the gulf from the leak, joining the five million gallons of crude that have already been released.

"Unfortunately, this is a huge experiment in the sea floor of the gulf," said Michael Hirschfeld, chief scientist for Oceana. "We really don't have any idea how it's going to turn out, but we know it's not good."

ABC's Jake Tapper, Ayana Harry, Azfar Deen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.