Containing Oil Spill Is Still Mostly Talk

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Robert King / Polaris

Waves in the Gulf of Mexico spill over booms set up to block oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead on May 1, 2010

A week and a half after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank beneath the Gulf of Mexico, triggering a massive oil spill that was just beginning to reach the Gulf coastline, President Obama visited the town of Venice, La., on Sunday afternoon to check out the damage. A fishing port on the far southern reaches of Louisiana, just 40 miles from the sunken oil rig, Venice has become a locus for a massive private and public response to the accident, and Obama promised that the federal government would do its part. "Every American affected by this spill should know this: your government will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this crisis," he said. "That's a commitment I'm making as President of the United States."

But in recent days, as the oil has continued to spill — at least 5,000 bbl. a day are leaking from the Horizon's blown well, and the amount could be much higher — officials and residents have been coming to grips with the fact that this disaster is just beginning. Attempts by the energy company British Petroleum (BP) — which owns the sunken oil rig and is responsible for the cleanup — to shut off the leaking well have continued to fail, and it's becoming more likely that there will be no easy way to stanch the flow. "The scenario is a very grave scenario," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on NBC's Meet the Press. "You're looking at potentially 90 days before you get to the ultimate solution, which is drilling a relief well three miles below the ocean floor."

Salazar was one of several high-level Obama Administration officials who made the rounds on the Sunday TV news programs. Each worked to counter allegations that the White House was slow to recognize the severity of the situation, spreading the message that Washington is engaged in what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called an "all hands on deck" response to the accident. And they also emphasized that BP would be held financially responsible for the response and the cleanup — which by some analysts' estimates could eventually exceed $14 billion. "Let me be clear," said Obama in Louisiana. "BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill."

But while BP may have to write the checks, it's the coastal communities along the Gulf that will suffer the most if the oil flow can't be curtailed. "This threatens our way of life," said Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal during a press conference on Saturday. "We will do whatever we can to protect our coastlines, our culture and our way of life."

Still, every attempt to stanch the flow of oil so far — 5,000 feet beneath the ocean's surface, where the pressure is near a ton per square inch — has met with failure. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, named over the weekend as the top federal official for the oil-spill response, told reporters on Saturday that his team was experimenting with using chemical dispersants — usually employed on the surface of a slick, where they break up the oil — directly on the underwater leak. That's never been tried before; nor has another option, to build a dome over the leak and channel the oil into a ship on the surface. But the only conventional option — drilling a relief well to plug the blown wellhead — would take at least three months. "The first thing is to stop this thing at the source," Allen said. "Continuing to fight this thing at the surface and on the shore is not the right way to do it."

Until the oil stops spilling, however, responders will have no choice but to try to protect the threatened coastline mile by mile. Aside from spraying over 140,000 gal. of chemical dispersants on the oil slick — now the size of Puerto Rico and still growing — responders have arrayed nearly 300,000 feet of floating booms, which can corral and concentrate the oil, allowing it to be skimmed. But even with what is quickly becoming the biggest oil-spill response in history, there may be no way to keep the coastline protected for long if the leak can't be stopped. It hasn't helped that high winds have made it harder for responders, including many local fishermen who have offered to help, to navigate the rocky waters. Even worse, current estimates of the spill rate might turn out to be low. "The worst-case scenario is we could have 100,000 bbl. [a day] or more of oil flowing out," said Salazar on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday.

That would be 4.2 million gal. of oil a day, and it would mean that the Horizon accident is already far worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled nearly 11 million gal. of oil in 1989. The Gulf spill could also present unique challenges. The oil being drilled by the Horizon rig may be a very heavy crude — unlike the light crude usually found in the Gulf — and could be much tougher to finally clean up. The wetlands and marshes of southern Louisiana, home to an astonishing array of seabirds and valuable oyster beds, are tricky to navigate and will be hard to protect. "This has already moved far beyond a simple spill," says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "You have several hundred miles of coastline — including some wildlife refuges — that could be blanketed [with oil]."

On Sunday afternoon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) closed fishing for the next 10 days from points east of the mouth of the Mississippi River to the waters just off the Florida Panhandle, a region that produces a significant portion of North America's fish, crabs, oysters and shrimp. In a statement, NOAA's administrator, Jane Lubchenco, made clear that "there should be no health risk in seafood currently in the marketplace."

During his short visit in Louisiana, Obama acknowledged the risk to what he called "one of the richest and most beautiful ecosystems on the planet." And he promised to make the Gulf Coast — still recovering from a series of hurricanes, including Katrina in 2005 — whole once again. "We're going to do everything in our power to protect our natural resources, compensate those who have been harmed, rebuild what has been damaged and help this region persevere," he said. But with the spill going from bad to worse to potentially catastrophic in just a few days, Obama — and everyone involved in the response — has his work cut out for him.

With reporting by Steven Gray / New Orleans