Thursday, April 29, 2010

The rapidly expanding environmental catastrophe caused by the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana is presenting a growing political challenge to the Obama White House, with Mr. Obama and his aides at pains to defend the response and forestall comparisons to the Hurricane Katrina crisis.

Nine days after British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew apart and began spewing 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, a massive oil slick is set to wash ashore on the southern coast Thursday evening and, experts say, could dwarf the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

Failure to get control of the relief effort and contain the environmental challenge could pose the same kind of political threat to Mr. Obama’s popular standing that the much-criticized handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina did for former President George W. Bush. And unlike Katrina, it is likely the federal government will be the clear lead authority in dealing with the BP spill.

But Mr. Obama only Thursday dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson to help coordinate the federal response to the potential environmental disaster.

“We are being very aggressive and we are prepared for the worst case,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara said at the White House.

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The president said Thursday his administration has held daily briefings on the disater and will use “every single available resource at our disposal” to respond to the spill. His comments came at the opening of a Rose Garden event to honor teachers.

The spill has been sweeping across the gulf for nine days. At first, BP estimated the flow from the snapped-off, mile-down well at 1,000 barrels a day; now, officials say the flow is more like 5,000 barrels a day,

The spill, as of Tuesday, was 21 miles from shore, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said during a press conference. On Thursday, the slick was just three miles from shore and blowing in quickly.

The White House contends that the federal reaction to the spill was immediate.

“The response to the BP oil spill began as an emergency search-and-rescue mission by the U.S. Coast Guard and other partners. Concurrently, command center operations were stood up in the Gulf Coast to begin immediately addressing the environmental impact of the incident,” administration spokesman Nick Shapiro said.

BP’s response has so far also been aggressive: The company has sent more than 1,100 personnel, 33 ships and five planes to control and monitor the spill. BP officials say they are spending $6 million a day to shut off the flowing well and contain the spill.

The oil company is hoping to cover the well with a steel cap to avert an environmental disaster. However, the plan would take a month to complete, by which stage over 150,000 barrels could have been spilt.

Mr. Obama’s response to the disaster will be closely scrutinized for parallels to the response of Mr. Bush to the devastating Hurricane Katrina that blew into New Orleans in August 2005, destroying levies and damaging the below-sea-level city. Later assessments by some organizations found that the primary responsibility for the disaster response lay with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, not federal officials, but that did not lessen the political damage to Mr. Bush’s administration.

Then, the federal government was critcized for not taking over the local effort by state and local agencies. So far, no one has complained that the federal government has not taken over the operation now led by BP.

But few measures so far appear to have worked to curb the oil slick. Drilling a second well to plug the leak, an option BP has examined, would cost an estimated $100 million. The relief well would take two to three months, and by then, the spill could be over 300,000 barrels large than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Spund, America’s worst oil spill to date.

The White House went on a full offensive Thursday in hopes of showing that had the situation well in hand. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said the federal government had opened a command center in Robert, La., and are opening another in Mobile, Ala.

In a hastily called briefing Thursday with top administration officials, the White House bristled at the notion that the federal government was slow off the mark.

“BP is the responding party,” said Mrs. Napolitano. “We are overseeing them. We’re working very closely with all of the state and local partners.”

The Homeland Security secretary said measures are underway and that a worst-case scenario is not a foregone conclusion.

The White House late Thursday put out a “readout” of calls Mr. Obama made to governors of states that could be affected by the spill.

“The president described the range of federal actions that are underway to respond to the spill and stressed the importance of maintaining close coordination with the Governors as this event continues to evolve. All of the governors appreciated the call and the actions being taken by the federal government,” the e-mail said.

As dawn broke Thursday in the oil industry hub of Venice, about 75 miles from New Orleans and not far from the mouth of the Mississippi River, crews loaded an orange oil boom aboard a supply boat at Bud’s Boat Launch. There, local officials expressed frustration with the pace of the government’s response and the communication they were getting from the Coast Guard and BP officials.

“We’re not doing everything we can do,” said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, which straddles the Mississippi River at the tip of Louisiana.

There’s a growing tension in towns like Port Sulphur and Empire along the Louisiana coast, which runs south of New Orleans along the Mississippi River into prime oyster and shrimping waters.

Companies like Chevron and ConocoPhillips have facilities nearby, and some are hesitant to criticize BP or the federal government, knowing the oil industry is as much a staple of the local economy as the fishermen.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of blame going around here, people are just concerned about their livelihoods,” said Sullivan Vullo, who owns La Casa Cafe in Port Sulphur.

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