Officials' forecast grim about massive oil spill as Obama tours part of the Gulf Coast

By Joel Achenbach and Anne E. Kornblut
Monday, May 3, 2010; A01

On a stormy Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico, the one piece of good news -- the huge oil slick remains offshore -- was framed by ominous forecasts from government officials as the uncapped well nearly a mile below the surface continued to spew an unknown quantity of crude. President Obama flew in for a briefing about what he called "a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."

In the region's beach towns and coastline parishes, people waited and floated more booms to try to block the rogue oil that threatens their fragile economy and delicate marshlands.

"The best-case scenario: It gets stopped today. Worst-case scenario: This thing could keep going on for 90 days," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said as he made the rounds of the talk shows.

With the oil patch growing, the federal government closed commercial and recreational fishing for at least 10 days in federal waters from the mouth of the Mississippi River to near Pensacola, Fla. Obama met with a handful of fishermen during his short, rain-drenched tour of the Louisiana coast.

Although the Obama visit was the capstone of a White House effort to convey full engagement, the most critical events are 42 miles from land and deep beneath the waves. Six robotic submarines, operated by engineers and technicians on ships at the surface, are circling and manipulating a balky 450-ton, four-story-tall structure called a "blowout preventer" that covers the wellhead and has devices designed to clamp the flow of oil in this kind of calamity. The blowout preventer has failed to live up to its name.

"This is like doing open-heart surgery at 5,000 feet in the dark with robot-controlled submarines," Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America, said on ABC's "This Week."

At a low-slung Coast Guard station along a waterway in Venice, a town two hours southeast of New Orleans, Obama had a briefing on the efforts to cap the oil well and the economic and environmental implications for the region.

"BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill," Obama said before taking a brief helicopter tour over the water.

The Deepwater Horizon floating rig, which BP leases, found oil beneath 5,000 feet of water and 13,000 feet of rock when something went awry April 20, causing an explosion and fire. Most of the workers on the rig abandoned ship and were rescued, but 11 were killed. The rig, larger than a football field, sank two days later and sits upside down on the bottom.

Crumpled by the disaster was the "riser," the 21-inch pipe that emerges from the well with the smaller drill pipe inside. The riser is kinked at a 90-degree angle about five feet above the blowout preventer, and oil is bleeding from an irregular crack, BP spokesman Bill Salvin said. A second leak is 460 feet away on a section of the riser that lies on the gulf floor. A third leak is from the end of the drill pipe, 810 feet from the blowout preventer.

Barring a sudden triumph with the blowout preventer, BP plans to try to capture the oil with containment domes, also known as cofferdams. The idea is to lower the huge 74-ton steel domes over the blowout preventer and the other two leaks, then pump the captured oil to a barge capable of holding 250,000 barrels. of oil. But the domes are still being fabricated in Louisiana and will not be deployed for six to eight days, McKay said Sunday.

It's not a simple feat: A BP spokesman said this kind of emergency response has never been tried at such a depth.

The third avenue of attack will take the longest: BP plans to drill a relief well that will take pressure off the deep oil reservoir. That could be a three-month job.

On Sunday, Salazar repeatedly said there are 30,000 wells in the gulf. But all but a few hundred are in relatively shallow water. Although other wells have been as deep as the one drilled by Deepwater Horizon, this remains at the edge of what is technologically possible. That also means that the government lacks the tools to seal the well and must rely on the oil industry to find a solution.

"Our job basically is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum," Salazar said on CNN's "State of the Union."

The oil spill presents technical challenges far more complex than those of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, where the quantity of oil could be easily estimated, said the administration's point person on the crisis, Adm. Thad W. Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

"This spill at this point, in my view, is indeterminate. That makes it asymmetrical, anomalous and one of the most complex things we've ever dealt with," Allen said on CNN.

Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation said his group had taken a small plane over the slick Sunday. He said that from the air, the oil looked in some places like long ribbons of mud. In others, he said, it made the water strangely more reflective of sunlight, "as if somebody just took a paintbrush and just put varnish atop the ocean."

Allen said Sunday night that the spill is 40 to 50 miles wide and 80 miles long and holding nearly steady, possibly slowed by an eddy current at the mouth of the Mississippi. "It's pretty well remained in the vicinity of the well so far," he said.

High winds and the threat of hail and tornados impeded efforts Sunday to keep the oil slick from reaching coastal Louisiana. The heavy seas have made skimming the oil nearly impossible, and the last controlled burn of the slick took place Thursday.

Some boats did get out to assess damage and lay protective booms despite the five-foot seas. In St. Bernard Parish, La., southeast of New Orleans, experienced fishermen took back routes through marshes to lay booms near shore.

The good news, Parish Council President Wayne J. Landry said, was that the stormy weather seemed to have slowed the progress toward his section of coastline.

"Really, the oil, the slick hasn't moved much. It's like we bought ourselves an extra day," Landry said, adding that winds seemed to be shifting in a way that would push the oil north toward another section of coast. "Which is good news for St. Bernard, not good for the beaches of Mississippi."

Farther south, in the Louisiana peninsula that points toward the heart of the slick, hundreds of fishermen have been given the training required to put out the protective booms.

Rusty Gaudé, a Louisiana seafood extension agent, said, "If you're not carrying a gun, you're not on drugs, and you speak English, you can get a job."

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