By Michael D. Shear, Steven Mufson and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 30, 2010; 3:59 PM
As a massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico threatened the U.S. coastline Friday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) expressed alarm that prevention efforts so far have been ineffective, and he demanded that the federal government and oil giant BP uphold their commitments to help avert an environmental disaster.
In an afternoon news conference with Obama administration officials, Jindal said he was worried that miles of booms deployed offshore are "not effective" in preventing oil from damaging coastal areas, wildlife and the livelihoods of fishermen. He announced that he is seeking to mobilize 6,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen for 90 days of duty to help provide security and support the response to the oil spill.
"I do have concerns that BP's current resources are not adequate" to meet three main challenges from the disaster: stopping the leak of oil from a damaged undersea well, protecting the coast and carrying out a swift cleanup.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who visited the area with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other federal officials, stressed that BP, which owns the leaking oil, is "the responsible party" under U.S. law and is "required to fund the cost of cleanup operations." She urged the company to "leverage additional assets" for the effort.
"We have anticipated and planned for a worst-case scenario from day one," Napolitano said. She said the administration is using all available resources to respond to the disaster.
Earlier, the White House pledged not to expand offshore oil drilling until federal investigations are completed into what caused the Deepwater Horizon rig to explode April 20 and sink into the gulf two days later.
With the edge of the massive spill reaching the U.S. coastline late Thursday, and bad weather triggering a coastal flood warning, the crisis is threatening to eclipse the Exxon Valdez as the nation's worst environmental disaster in decades.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that cleanup efforts could end up costing billions of dollars.
Coast Guard crews patrolled coastal marshes in southeastern Louisiana on Friday in search of areas where the oil has flowed in, the Associated Press reported, and the state of Louisiana diverted thousands of gallons of fresh water from the Mississippi River to try to flush out the wetlands.
Weather was complicating the effort to control the oil spill. The National Weather Service issued a flood warning for the Louisiana coast from Friday until Sunday evening and said waves of six to seven feet were pushing tides several feet above normal. The service also cautioned small craft to expect "strong winds and hazardous seas" through the weekend off the shores of Mississippi and Louisiana.
It forecast winds of 17 to 29 mph with occasional gusts to 38 mph. "Seas are expected to build to 13 feet by Saturday night in the outer coastal waters and near 9 feet in the near shore waters," an advisory said, with "steep breaking waves in shoal areas."
The rough seas slowed efforts by a flotilla of ships to skim the oily mixture from the water's surface, federal officials said. The Pentagon is sending two C-130 Hercules cargo planes to Mississippi to aid in the cleanup, by dumping chemical dispersants on the water. A number of civilian planes have already been doing the same job.
An animal rescue operation at Fort Jackson, about 70 miles southeast of New Orleans, found its first bird covered in crude oil, a young northern gannet. Workers with Delaware-based Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research used dishwashing soap to scrub it, AP reported.
Senior White House adviser David Axelrod pledged Friday that President Obama's plans to end a long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling would be put on hold until the cause of an explosion last week at the Deepwater Horizon rig is known. That explosion led to the collapse of the rig and the rupture of the undersea oil well pipes. It injured 17 rig workers and left 11 others missing and presumed dead.
"What the president has said -- all he has said -- is he's not going to continue the moratorium on drilling. But . . . no additional drilling has been authorized and none will [be] until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here," Axelrod said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Obama spoke publicly about the spill for the second day in a row Friday, vowing that the government would meet its responsibilities and saying he has ordered a report from Salazar in 30 days about what caused the explosion and what new safeguards might be needed.
"We're going to make sure that any [oil drilling] leases going forward have those safeguards," he said at the beginning of a Rose Garden appearance that focused mostly on the economy.
Obama reiterated his support for increased oil production, saying that he continues to believe it is an important part of the nation's overall energy security. "But I've always said it must be done responsibly, for the safety of our workers and our environment," he said.
Clinton also weighed in on the oil spill Friday, saying that offshore drilling cannot go ahead at the risk of multibillion-dollar cleanups.
In an interview scheduled for broadcast on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday morning, the secretary of state said, "The first order of business . . . is to try to get this spill under control . . . and to prevent further damage to the coastline along Louisiana, to the fishing waters, to the wildlife."
The spill "does raise questions which the president has said have to be answered," Clinton said. She described offshore oil drilling as a matter of "national security" for its potential to lessen dependence on foreign oil. "But it has to be done safely," she said. "It can't be done at the risk of having to spend billions of dollars cleaning up these spills. So . . . it's going to require a balancing act."
Obama's announcement last month that he planned to allow oil exploration and drilling along vast new offshore areas began a long process that requires public input, permitting and other steps. Even without Axelrod's pronouncement on drilling, the establishment of new oil rigs in coastal U.S. waters was, practically speaking, already years away.
But the huge oil slick floating toward the shoreline -- and the prospect of images of wildlife covered with crude -- have made it crucial for the White House to show it is not rushing forward.
The outlook in the Gulf of Mexico remained bleak in the wake of the April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
A light sheen of oil was on the gulf waters approaching the mouth of the Mississippi River, Bloomberg News reported. The Coast Guard has ordered ships to slow down near three of the river's four entrances, the wire service said, to prevent injury to workers maintaining a boomed-off safety area around the spill.
But the Coast Guard does not plan to close the entrances altogether, Bloomberg reported.
Obama said five staging areas had been set up to coordinate emergency efforts to protect sensitive shorelines. A total of 300 vessels and aircraft have been mobilized around the clock, and workers have laid down 217,000 feet of absorbent foam booms, the president said.
The Coast Guard has approved an experimental plan by 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. 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, have failed.
BP, formerly British Petroleum, nevertheless is "mobilizing its full resources to fight the spill," the company said in a statement Friday.
"We are doing absolutely everything in our power to eliminate the source of the leak and contain the environmental impact of the spill," BP chief executive Tony Hayward said. "We are determined to fight this spill on all fronts, in the deep waters of the Gulf, in the shallow waters and, should it be necessary, on the shore."
Napolitano, Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson traveled to the Gulf Coast on Friday to assess the impact of the spill. They were accompanied by Carol Browner, the White House director of energy and climate change policy, and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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.
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 Salazar met with oil and gas industry executives to appeal for ideas and help. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency.
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 Valdez spill.
If efforts to reactivate the blowout-preventer continue to 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.
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 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 have stressed that BP will 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 stabilized Friday after falling more than 8 percent Thursday.
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.