President Obama took a firsthand look Sunday at the response effort to an oil spill that he called a "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster." Officials for BP, meanwhile, for the first time detailed their desperate efforts to seal the gushing well.
NEW ORLEANS — President Obama took a firsthand look Sunday at the response effort to an oil spill that he called a “potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.” Officials for BP, meanwhile, for the first time detailed their desperate efforts to seal the gushing well.
Over the next two days, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, the spill appeared likely to move toward the Mississippi and Alabama coasts and engulf the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana’s southeast tip.
“The oil that is still leaking from the well could seriously damage the economy and the environment of our Gulf states, and it could extend for a long time,” Obama said. “It could jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who call this place home.”
Speaking at the staging area for the response effort, Obama added: “BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill.”
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While he did not criticize the company in his public remarks, Obama’s comments reflected increased frustration in the administration with BP’s inability to plug the oil leak.
BP was operator of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded April 20. The rig collapsed two days later, and the oil soon began leaking. BP, working with an array of government agencies and private companies, has been unable to stop the flow of crude.
Bob Fryar, the company’s senior vice president for operations in Angola who was brought to a command center in Houston for the engineering effort, said BP hoped to install a shut-off valve on one of the three leaks Monday. That may stop some of the oil flow, he said.
But the biggest leak, at the end of the riser pipe, which Fryar said was the source of most of the spewing oil, cannot be shut off in this way. The company intends to address that leak by lowering a containment dome over it, and then pumping the oil to the surface. That effort is at least six days away, Fryar said. Another containment dome, for the third leak, on the riser near the wellhead, would follow two to four days after the first.
The root of the problem appears to be a towering stack of heavy equipment 5,000 feet below the surface of the gulf known as a blowout preventer. The so-called BOP is a steel-framed stack of valves, rams, housings, tanks and hydraulic tubing designed to seal the well quickly in the event of a burst of pressure. It did not work when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.
Fryar and Charlie Holt, BP’s drilling operations manager for the Gulf, described an audacious plan to confront the BOP problem. In this approach, they would seal the well by cutting the riser at the wellhead, sliding a huge piece of equipment called the riser package out of the way and bolting a second blowout preventer atop the first one.
The risk in attempting such a maneuver — which would be performed, as all the undersea work has been, by robotic submersibles tethered to support ships 5,000 feet above — is that the pressure of the oil rising from the well could be overwhelming, and the well could gush oil at an even higher rate. Fryar said a pressure gauge would be installed soon to determine whether it was safe to attempt the operation.
“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.”
If a second blowout preventer could be installed, it could be used to bring the well under control so it could be capped and sealed.
The blowout preventer “has lots of redundancies, there are lots of opportunities to shut these off,” Fryar said. “None of these worked.” But whether the equipment was faulty or was damaged in one of the two explosions on the rig was unclear.
“They were tested,” he said of the valves. “We need to turn to the investigation to see exactly when the BOP failed.”
Officials still plan to drill relief wells, which would allow crews to plug the gushing cavity with heavy liquid. The relief wells, however, will take months to execute.
For a second day, Fryar said, crews were injecting chemical dispersant into the oil as it flowed from the main leak. Dispersant, more conventionally used on the water surface, breaks the oil into small droplets and reduces its buoyancy, so it will sink to the bottom.
“We think this dispersant is highly effective,” he said. “We’re hoping the oil won’t make it to the surface.”
Response crews continued to put out booms, and were training volunteers in Mississippi and Florida to help minimize the impact if the spill reaches the beaches, said John Curry, head of external affairs at BP.
Cleanup efforts were hampered again Sunday by bad weather and 7- to 10-foot swells, preventing planes from dropping chemical dispersants and oil skimmers from corralling the slick on the surface.
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 initially had not planned to visit the region until later this week at the earliest, White House officials said Friday. With criticism mounting that the government’s response was too slow, however, White House officials decided the president needed to make the trip to the Gulf on Sunday.
White House officials sent two Cabinet officials to appear on the Sunday television talk shows with the message that the administration was doing everything it could to take control of the spill and had been involved from the beginning.
“Our job basically is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
For Obama, the widening environmental calamity in the Gulf is made even more complicated, politically, by the fact that the spill occurred just a month after the president announced he was expanding offshore drilling. He now says no new leases will be approved until a thorough review of the causes of the BP leak is complete.
Obama met with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal upon the arrival of Air Force One in New Orleans. The president then traveled to Venice, La., for two hours — by road, rather than helicopter, because of inclement weather — to look at the response.
He stopped to speak to several fishermen, assuring them that BP would reimburse them for the lost earnings.
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.
Said Rusty Gaude, a Louisiana seafood extension agent: “If you’re not carrying a gun, you’re not on drugs, and you speak English, you can get a job.”