As oil spill hits Louisiana coast, critics assail Obama's offshore drilling plan

President Barack Obama says his administration is doing 'everything necessary' to respond to oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Steven Mufson and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

The worsening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday threatened not only the shores of five states but also President Obama's plan to open vast stretches of U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling.

Hours before the spill started washing ashore in Louisiana late Thursday, members of Congress issued new calls for Obama to abandon his plans for expanded offshore drilling, and White House officials conceded that the spreading oil slick could cause the president to rethink his position. "We need to figure out what happened," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Would a finding of something possibly affect that? Of course."

The outlook in the Gulf of Mexico remained bleak in the wake of the April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and killed 11 workers. A change in the weather and choppy waters prevented a second burn of oil at sea and slowed efforts by a flotilla of ships to skim the oily mixture from the surface of the gulf, federal officials said. Continuing efforts to use remote-controlled robotic submarines to activate a malfunctioning blowout preventer lying on the sea floor in 5,000 feet of water failed.

The Coast Guard approved an experimental plan by petroleum giant BP, which had leased the rig, to apply chemical dispersants underwater near the places where oil is gushing from three breaks in the well pipes at an estimated rate of 5,000 barrels a day.

In Washington, the White House held a series of high-profile media events aimed at communicating that the administration is fully engaged in the crisis. Obama went to the Rose Garden and said, "While BP is ultimately responsible for funding the cost of response and cleanup operations, my administration will continue to use every single available resource at our disposal, including potentially the Department of Defense, to address the incident."

At a midday news conference, the administration rolled out two Cabinet chiefs and other senior White House advisers to assert that the government would do whatever it could to help BP stop the leak.

The administration is well aware that the president's campaign victory was built in part on a belief among voters that he would do a better job at responding to disasters like Hurricane Katrina than did President Bush. "This is in that list: Are you competently running government?" Gibbs said. He said the news conference with senior officials was aimed at letting the press and the public "know what we've done to respond."

Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said there were more than 50 vessels as well as aircraft deployed to the area of the spill and that workers had laid down 174,060 feet of absorbent foam booms and recovered 18,180 barrels of an oily mixture from the gulf's surface. She said they would also open a second command center in Mobile, Ala., in addition to the one in Louisiana.

The Navy said it is sending 66,000 feet of inflatable boom and seven skimming systems, and would offer its bases in the region as staging areas for the operation.

White House officials said they began holding regular conference calls with BP executives soon after the accident. On Thursday, Obama also called the governors of the five Gulf Coast states, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar met with oil and gas industry executives to appeal for ideas and help. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and mobilized National Guard troops.

On Friday, Napolitano, Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson will travel to the Gulf Coast at the president's request with Carol Browner, the White House director of energy and climate change policy, and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to inspect ooperations dedicated to minimizing environmental risks.

Extensive damage

Despite these efforts, it remained possible that the oil leak could continue for as long as three months, by which time it would rival the size of the 1989 spill from the Exxon Valdez. If efforts to reactivate the blowout-preventer fail, BP will try to lower 100-ton domes on top of the leaks in the pipes now lying on the sea floor and funnel the oil up through pipes to storage vessels. Such methods have been used before, but generally at depths of 350 feet or less.

BP also plans to start drilling a relief well Friday that would intercept the oil from the existing well and plug the leak, but the company said that could take several weeks. It took more than two months to plug a similar well blowout off the coast of Australia late last year.

By that time, the damage from the spill could be extensive and the political effect on Obama's offshore drilling plan and broader climate change agenda uncertain.

"I don't know whether it changes our understanding of offshore oil," David Pumphrey, deputy director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the accident. "But I think it changes the political debate quite a bit."

In backing wider offshore oil and gas exploration only a month ago, Obama promised to "employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration." He acknowledged that his decision would provoke criticism from those who decried the expansion and those who said it did not go far enough.

"Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all and those who would claim it has no place," Obama said.

Political damage, too

The accident in the gulf may provide more firepower for the critics on the left who for years have lobbied presidents and Congress to keep in place federal moratoriums on further offshore exploration. Those moratoriums have expired.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) called on Obama to step back from his expanded offshore drilling plans. In a letter to the president, Nelson said he would file legislation to ban the Interior Department from following through on Obama's proposal for new seismic and drilling activity. He said the gulf spill "may be an environmental and economic disaster that wreaks havoc for commercial fishing and tourism along the Gulf of Mexico coast."

Dan McLaughlin, a top aide to Nelson, said it was too early to say whether the federal government had responded adequately to what he called "our worst nightmare come true." But McLaughlin asked why the government had not done more to ensure that the oil companies could shut down a well if a catastrophic failure happened. "Somebody is going to have to ask the question as to why the regulators didn't put this question to the industry before?" McLaughlin said. "If everything fails, then what?"

That inquiry will likely focus on the blowout-preventer, which like the sunken drilling rig was owned by Transocean. In Norway, for example, blowout preventers are required to have a device known as an acoustic valve that can help assure activation in the event of an accident, but that device isn't required in the United States and wasn't part of the blowout preventer used on this well. BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said Wednesday that the blowout preventer had been inspected 10 days before the accident.

The Minerals Management Service, a part of the Interior Department that oversees safety on offshore rigs, said it would complete new inspections of all gulf exploration drilling rigs within seven days to prevent a repeat of the April 20 blast.

Obama aides stressed at the midday briefing that BP would bear the cost of the spill, including the cost of plugging the well, cleaning shorelines and paying for government air and water tests. Separately, fishermen and others anticipating environmental damage filed class-action suits against the company. On a day when the stock market rose broadly and sharply, BP's stock price fell more than 8 percent to $52.56 a share.

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