President Obama traveled to Louisiana for a firsthand glimpse of efforts to contain the massive oil spill off the coast there, and the administration deployed Cabinet secretaries for a Sunday media blitz as the White House sought to combat accusations of a slow response to the disaster.
Mr. Obama and other administration officials were vigorous in detailing federal assistance efforts to contain the spill, which was caused by an explosion of a BP-owned offshore oil rig that killed 11 people on April 20.
Although Mr. Obama did not make his first public statement on the situation until nine days later, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dismissed comparisons to the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, saying Mr. Obama has been on top of the situation since “Day One.”
“I think that is a total mischaracterization,” Ms. Napolitano said on “Fox News Sunday” of any similarity to Katrina. “What happened is the situation itself evolved. The situation evolved from an explosion and a search-and-rescue mission to, several days later, the actual sinking of the rig.”
In a public statement from Venice, La. - just miles from the offshore explosion - Mr. Obama said it’s been “all hands on deck” at the White House and listed in exhaustive detail the federal government’s assistance efforts, which include the dispatching of Pentagon aircraft to spray the oil slick with dispersant chemicals and SWAT teams to inspect oil platforms.
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“From Day One we have prepared and planned for the worst, even as we hoped for the best,” a rain-soaked Mr. Obama told a small group of reporters. “And while we have prepared and reacted aggressively, I’m not going to rest … or be satisfied until the leak is stopped at the source, the oil on the Gulf is contained and cleaned up, and the people of this region are able to go back to their lives and their livelihoods.”
But Mr. Obama cautioned that it will ultimately be BP that’s on the hook in terms of the responsibility for the cleanup as well as the cost.
On Sunday’s political talk shows, BP’s chairman said the spill happened because of “a failed piece of equipment” called a blowout preventer that is supposed to seal off the well’s geyser of oil in the event of an accident.
Lamar McKay told ABC’s “This Week” that he couldn’t say when the well will be plugged and it likely will take about a week for a 74-ton metal-and-concrete box to be placed over the well, on the ocean floor a mile below the surface.
In addition to meeting with federal commanders on the ground in Louisiana, Mr. Obama met with Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has expressed concern over BP’s “ability to respond” to the spill.
On Saturday, Mr. Jindal, a Republican, said the spill threatens “our way of life in Louisiana.”
On Sunday, federal government severely restricted fishing in the Gulf of Mexico waters off Louisiana and elsewhere, dealing a major blow to the commercial and recreational fishing industry, which is worth $2.4 billion per year to Louisiana alone.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “is restricting fishing for a minimum of 10 days in federal waters most affected by the BP oil spill, largely between Louisiana state waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River to waters off Florida’s Pensacola Bay. The closure is effective immediately,” NOAA said.
Ms. Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar likewise called on the oil giant to step up its own containment efforts and plug the leak. Because the well is located thousands of feet under surface, sealing it off requires robot-controlled submarines and could take days.
In Mobile, Ala., the attorneys general from the five states with Gulf of Mexico shorelines - Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas - told reporters after a meeting that while they are not ready to sue yet, they want BP to spell out soon in writing exactly what “legitimate expenses” the company wants the states to cover.
The situation is likely to surpass the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster as the costliest oil disaster in the nation’s history, devastating the local fishing industry as well as wildlife. But while the Exxon Valdez ranks as the country’s worst oil disaster, it’s outranked globally. The 1991 oil spill that took place during the Gulf War is regarded as the world’s largest, thought to have released anywhere between 40 million and 450 million gallons.
By comparison, nearly 11 million gallons of oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez into Prince William Sound, Alaska. About 200,000 gallons a day are thought to be spilling into the Gulf from the BP rig.
Compounding the Louisiana incident, high wind, rain and choppy waters have hobbled animal rescue efforts. In Mobile, Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama told reporters that 80 percent of the inflatable booms his state deployed to catch the oil spill have collapsed in bad weather. He said the other Gulf Coast states are experiencing similar problems.
Asked how the catastrophe affects Mr. Obama’s recently announced plans to open up several new swaths of land to offshore oil drilling, Mr. Salazar said the administration intends to “move forward thoughtfully” on the issue.
“I do think that one of the things that this does is it sends out the clarion call that we need to diversify our energy resources,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. But citing that 30 percent of the nation’s domestic oil comes from the Gulf, Mr. Salazar noted that thousands of deep-water oil and gas wells have been drilled in the past without incident.
Nevertheless, White House senior adviser David Axelrod has said that no new leases will be granted until an investigation of the Louisiana disaster is completed.