WASHINGTON – BP officials Tuesday told congressional representatives that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could grow at a rate more than 10 times current estimates in a worst-case scenario – greatly enlarging the potential scope of the disaster.
Most of the handful of congressional Democrats and Republicans who met with representatives from BP, Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill walked away unimpressed.
A source who attended the meeting said that company representatives had a “deer in headlights” look and that the tenor of the conversation was that the companies “are attempting to solve a problem which they have never had to solve before at this depth … at this scope of disaster. They essentially said as much.”
“What we heard was worst-case scenario, with no good solutions,” said the source.
Officials have estimated that the leak is gushing oil at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day. But if things go badly, company representatives worried that figure could turn into 60,000 barrels a day, or 2.5 million gallons. Just four days at that rate would exceed the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, the worst spill in U.S. history.
The gloomy acknowledgement came on a day when calm winds allowed more boats to attack the spill and slowed the progress of the plume, which extends in a ragged pattern from the coast of Louisiana to offshore Pensacola, Fla.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, commanding officer of the guard’s District 8 in New Orleans, said the best guess was that the slick remained at least 20 miles off the coast. BP officials said they were forecasting that the oil would not make landfall for three more days. But Lyle Panepinto, a sea-plane pilot in Louisiana, said he saw a band of oil about 10 feet wide and several miles long circling the north end of Chandeleur Island about 50 yards from the beach.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said that if the weather holds, “we are going to be in pretty good shape here. … It’s a great thing that we have a few more days now to make sure we get all of the booms and barriers in place. … It’s going up very, very rapidly.”
Tests on new spill samples indicated the oil is typical Louisiana sweet crude, a light oil that can be either burned or readily dispersed, aiding cleanup efforts.
But like a wild animal eluding capture, the spill was unpredictable, its path and harm to the environment dependent on unknowns, including whether the so-called Loop Current could drag it below the tip of Florida – a nightmare scenario for the Keys and Everglades.