Washington wakes up to oil-spill crisis

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WASHINGTON – For days, as an oil spill spread in the Gulf of Mexico, BP assured the US Government that the plume was manageable, not catastrophic.

Federal authorities were content to let the company handle the mess while keeping an eye on the operation.

United Stares President Barack Obama

But then government scientists realised the leak was five times larger than they had been led to believe, people were saying it threatened to eclipse the Exxon Valdez disaster, and days of lulling statistics and reassuring words gave way yesterday to an all-hands-on-deck emergency response.

Now questions are sure to be raised about a self-policing system that trusted a commercial operator to take care of its own mishap even as it grew into a menace imperilling Gulf Coast nature and livelihoods from Florida to Texas.

The pivotal point had come on Thursday, at a news conference at an oil research centre in the tiny community of Robert, Louisiana. That’s when Americans learned the earlier estimates were way off, and an additional leak had been found.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama set in motion a larger federal mobilisation, pledging to deploy “every single available resource” to the area and ordering his disaster and environmental leaders to get down there in person.

Only a few days after the Coastguard assured the country there was “ample time” to protect the coast if oil came ashore, warnings from the Government were newly alarming.

“I am frightened for the country, for the environment,” David Kennedy, assistant chief of the National Ocean Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said.

“This is a very, very big thing, and the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling.”

The political subtext of the crisis was clear and increasingly on people’s minds, whether from a federal office deploying oil-containment booms or from a Louisiana parish awaiting yet another sucker punch from the sea.

Will this be Obama’s Katrina? Should the federal and state governments have done more, and earlier? Did they learn the lessons of the devastating hurricane?

Political calculations vied with the increasingly scary Gulf reality – hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and its progression to landfall overnight.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who is also in a hot campaign for the Senate, flew over the slick and commended the federal actions to date but wondered if anyone, really, could be doing enough in this situation.

“It appeared to me that this is probably much bigger than we can fathom,” he said.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency yesterday so officials could begin preparing for the oil’s impact.

He said at least 10 wildlife management areas and refuges in his state and neighbouring Mississippi were in the oil plume’s path.

The declaration also noted that billions of dollars had been invested in coastal restoration projects that may be at risk. He also asked the federal Government if he could call up 6000 National Guard troops to help.

The crisis began with a massive explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon on April 20, more than 60km off the Louisiana coast. The search for 11 missing workers overshadowed environmental concerns until they were given up for lost.

Rear Admiral Mary Landry, chief of the Coastguard in the region, said at the outset that most of the oil was burning off, leaving only a moderate rainbow sheen on the water and no sign of a major spill.

“Both the industry and the Coastguard have technical experts actively at work,” she said. “So there’s a whole technical team on both sides of the aisle here to ensure we keep the conditions stable.”

Two days later, the Deepwater Horizon sank and crews spotted a massive sheen with a dark centre that appeared to be a crude oil mix. Obama got his first briefing on the accident.

Landry said the following day that no oil appeared to be leaking from a well head at the ocean floor, nor was any leaking noted at the surface.

At the White House, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said sometimes accidents happen, and the loss of the Deepwater Horizon was no reason to back off on the President’s recent decision to support expanded offshore drilling.

Throughout the Government was deferring to BP on what was being done at the site and on assessments of progress.

The Coastguard was not doing its own independent, first-hand assessment of the seabed rupture. Landry repeatedly asserted that BP was the responsible party and would shoulder the costs and organisational duties associated with the cleanup effort while the Coastguard monitored things and approved the numbers of vessels working the scene and the methods of control.

On Tuesday, Landry offered assurances that the Gulf Coast should be safe.

“This is ample time to protect sensitive areas and prepare for cleanup should the oil impact this area,” she said.

And at sea, BP officials were “doing their best”.

On Thursday night, she reported the findings of federal experts that up to 5000 barrels (757,000 litres) a day were leaking from the well. BP had estimated only 1000. What’s more, the company told the Coastguard a new leak had been found. Obama was briefed on these developments on Air Force One while returning at night from the Midwest.

At that rate, the spill could eclipse the worst oil spill in US history – the 275,000 barrels that leaked from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 – in the three months it could take to drill a relief well and plug the gushing well 1500m underwater on the sea floor.

The spill could grow much larger than the Valdez because Gulf of Mexico wells typically hold many times more oil than a single tanker.

By yesterday afternoon, the White House had assembled a team of top advisers to showcase the Administration’s determination to head off the damage posed by the oil slick. And Gibbs acknowledged details of the President’s drilling proposal might be revisited, depending on the investigation into the rig explosion and spill.

The equation had changed, like a hurricane setting a new course.

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