Bad news continues to gush from well
Scientists declared the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico to be the worst in U.S. history Thursday, while federal and oil-industry officials capped a day of confusion by announcing they had suspended their mud-pumping "top kill" in its 10th hour.
Obama's news conference
KEY POINTS made by President Obama at his news conference Thursday:
He said his administration didn't act with "sufficient urgency" before the spill to clean up shop at the Minerals Management Service, accused of corruption and poor regulation of drilling rigs and wells.
He defended calling for an expansion of offshore drilling before the spill, but "where I was wrong," he said, was in believing that oil companies were prepared to respond to worst-case-scenario oil spills.
He said the administration took too long to make its own measurements of the size of the spill.
He took pains to make it clear that he, not BP, is in charge of making sure the spill is fixed.
He acknowledged the federal government's limits. BP has the technology to try to plug the leak; the federal government doesn't. He said a commission he's appointed should look at whether the government could acquire such technology.
The Associated Press
Official forced out: Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the much-criticized Minerals Management Service since July, resigned under pressure.
Cleanup cost: Federal officials say the massive oil spill has cost the government $87 million.
New plume: A new plume of what scientists believe to be oil has been sighted deep beneath the Gulf, stretching 22 miles from the leaking wellhead northeast toward Mobile Bay, Ala.
Seattle Times news services
MIAMI — Scientists declared the five-week-old BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to be the worst in U.S. history Thursday, while federal and oil-industry officials capped a day of confusion by announcing they had suspended their mud-pumping "top kill" in its 10th hour.
BP's chief operating officer revealed late Thursday that engineers had not pumped any mud into the runaway oil and gas spill since late Wednesday.
A 10-hour burst of 15,000 barrels of mud Wednesday slowed the spill, said BP's Doug Suttles. But engineers suspended it around midnight to replenish the mud and review their procedures.
BP resumed the pumping late Thursday, and officials said it could be late Friday or the weekend before engineers know if the procedure has stopped the oil flow.
Suttles said engineers may follow with a "junk shot" of "plating materials" and "dense rubber balls" to plug the leak.
"We might finish this in the next 24 hours, or it might take longer," Suttles said at a briefing in Robert, La., vowing to announce immediately if there was success.
The fate of the gusher was of intense interest as government scientists said the oil had been flowing at a rate 2 ½ to five times greater than what BP and the U.S. Coast Guard previously estimated.
Two teams of scientists calculated the well has been spewing between 504,000 and more than 1 million gallons a day. Even using the most conservative estimate, that means about 18 million gallons have spilled. Worst case, 39 million gallons had leaked as of Thursday.
The larger figure would be nearly four times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which a tanker ran aground in Alaska in 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons.
"Now we know the true scale of the monster we are fighting in the Gulf," said Jeremy Symons, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.
BP officials said the previous estimate of 210,000 gallons a day was based on the best data available and that the company's response was not tied to the estimate. "I don't believe at any time we have misled anybody on this," Suttles said.
The spill is not the biggest ever in the Gulf. In 1979, a drilling rig in Mexican waters — the Ixtoc I — blew up, releasing 140 million gallons of oil. That spill took nine months to stop.
The news of the BP spill came on a day of fast-breaking developments and conflicting reports about the latest effort to stop the oil leak 5,000 feet below the surface.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen stirred confusion in a series of remarks that reported "the mud was suppressing the hydrocarbons," meaning the oil and gas leak, but failed to mention that the top kill was suspended.
Robert Dudley, BP's managing director, said on the "Today" program that the top kill "was moving the way we want it to."
Not until later Thursday did BP acknowledge the operation was not succeeding and pumping had halted late Wednesday.
President Obama, meanwhile, who planned to visit the Gulf on Friday, ordered a suspension of virtually all current and new offshore oil drilling, pending a comprehensive safety review, acknowledging oversight had been seriously deficient.
His action halted planned exploratory wells in the Arctic due to be drilled this summer and planned lease sales off the coast of Virginia and in the Gulf. Work on 33 exploratory wells in the Gulf also was halted.
Obama said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., that he was angry and frustrated, and he shouldered much of the responsibility for the continuing crisis.
"Those who think we were either slow on the response or lacked urgency don't know the facts," he said. "This has been our highest priority."
But he also blamed BP and the Bush administration, which he said had fostered a "cozy and sometimes corrupt" relationship between oil companies and regulators at the Minerals Management Service (MMS).
Elizabeth Birnbaum, the chief of that agency for the past 11 months, resigned under pressure Thursday, less than a week after her boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, announced a restructuring of the office.
Obama plans to inspect the efforts in Louisiana to stop the leak and clean up after it, his second trip to the region since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers. He also plans to visit people affected by the spreading slick that has washed ashore over beaches and wetlands.
The impact of the new moratorium on offshore drilling remains uncertain. Obama ordered a halt to new leasing and drilling permits shortly after the spill, but MMS officials continued to issue permits for modifications to existing wells and to grant waivers from environmental assessments for other wells.
Shell Oil had been hoping to begin exploratory drilling this summer in the Arctic Ocean, which the new restrictions would delay. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, a staunch supporter of Arctic drilling, said he was frustrated because the decision "will cause more delays and higher costs for domestic oil and gas production to meet the nation's energy needs."
Also Thursday, University of South Florida scientists reported the discovery in the Gulf of a "plume" of dissolved oil that was 6 miles wide and up to 20 miles long. The plume extended from the surface down to a depth of 3,200 feet.
The oil is entirely dissolved in the water, which appears clear, USF professor David Hollander said. That seemed to confirm some scientists' fears that, because of the depth of the leak and the heavy use of chemical dispersants, this spill was behaving differently than others. Instead of floating, it may be moving beneath the water.
That could hamper containment efforts and would be a problem for ecosystems deep in the Gulf. There, scientists say, the oil could be absorbed by tiny animals and enter a food chain that builds to sport fish such as red snapper. It also might glom on to deep coral formations.
Oil has hit 101 miles of Louisiana coastline, state officials said, mainly lapping up on an outer ring of uninhabited barrier islands: Whiskey Island, Raccoon Island, Isle Grand Terre. Beaches and marinas of Grand Isle are deserted, except for people working on the spill.
Allen, meanwhile, approved a plan that sounded far-fetched in the spill's early days: Build more Louisiana. He signed off on portions of Louisiana's $350 million plan to build a line of six-foot-high barrier islands off the Louisiana coast, designed to block oil on the surface and underwater.
The approved portion involves a two-mile sand berm to be built off Scofield Island in Plaquemines Parish, one of six projects that the Army Corps of Engineers has approved out of 24 proposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
"What Admiral Allen told us today is that if the first one is effective, then they will consider moving on to the next one," Jindal said.
He added that BP should pay for the project.
Compiled from The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.
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