Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Plugging the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico could take weeks, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a frustrated panel of senators on Capitol Hill.

“We’re in the middle of this crisis, not the beginning, and not the end,” she told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs at a hearing Monday, the same day that Washington also saw changes in drilling regulations and at the agency that regulates offshore drilling.

Ms. Napolitano, who is overseeing the federal response to the spill from a BP rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana, defended the government’s handling of the accident, saying “we are doing everything we can” and recounting step by step the federal government’s escalation of manpower and resources over the four weeks since the oil-rig accident.

At the same hearing, Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP, reiterated that the firm is committed to stopping the leak, cleaning up the mess and paying for the costs of the accident - including reimbursing Gulf Coast residents and businesses for lost revenue and wages. He said BP has made $13 million in payments to claimants and “we intend to continue to make interim payments as long as necessary.”

Mr. McKay, responding to criticism in recent days from President Obama that oil companies were engaged in too much “finger-pointing” said BP is taking responsibility for cleaning up the Gulf.

“We at BP are concentrating on two things right now - stopping the leak and taking care of the economic claims,” he said. “The global resources of BP are being committed, nothing is being spared.”

Meanwhile Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced regulatory changes at the Bureau of Land Management as a response to the BP oil spill. He said the bureau officials will both visit potential new drilling sites and seek public comment before approving oil and gas leases in those areas, and will also require an “extraordinary circumstances” finding before allowing some regulatory shortcuts on oil and gas drilling.

“The BP oil spill is a stark reminder of how we must continue to push ahead with the reforms we have been working on and which we know are needed,” Mr. Salazar said, though the changes apply only to onshore drilling for oil and natural gas.

Earlier Monday, BP said efforts to permanently plug the well are finally showing signs of success: Relief wells are being drilled and a mile-long tube is funneling about 42,000 gallons of crude a day from the blown-out well into a tanker ship.

That would be about a fifth of the estimated 210,000 gallons gushing out each day, though scientists who have studied video of the leak say it could be much bigger.

Chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the siphoning appears to be removing some surface oil and BP would be pleased if it eventually captures half of it.

“Our efforts offshore are making a big difference now,” he said.

In the nearly a month since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 workers, BP has made several failed attempts to stop the leak, trying to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that got clogged with icy crystals.

Chemicals are being sprayed underwater to disperse the oil and keep it from washing ashore in great quantities. But millions of gallons are already in the Gulf, and researchers say they have found miles-long underwater oil plumes that could poison and suffocate sea life with possible decade-long effects across the food chain.

The company said Monday that it has started drilling a second well to relieve pressure on the blown-out well and also getting ready to try a procedure known as a “top-kill” that shoots mud and concrete directly into the well. Both of those procedures should stop all of the oil.

At the Senate hearing, Ms. Napolitano and Rear Adm. Peter Neffenger, who is heading the U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts, downplayed recent reports that the massive oil spill could be picked up by currents that would take the oil into and around Florida and up the East Coast.

Ms. Napolitano said the “loop current” is being treated as “another coastline,” with containment booms and crews at the ready if the spill threatens.

Adm. Neffenger said the oil would likely break up into tar balls if the current carries the spill to the east. “I’m not saying that’s a good thing, necessarily, but it will be more manageable than what we are facing now,” he said.

Mr. Obama has also been critical of the federal government’s “cozy relationship” with the industry it is supposed to be regulating, and another change came with Monday’s retirement of Chris Oynes, who oversees offshore drilling programs at the Minerals Management Service.

Mr. Oynes, who was regional director in charge of Gulf of Mexico offshore oil programs for 13 years before he was promoted in 2007 to associate director in charge of all offshore activities, has come under criticism for being too close to the oil industry.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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