WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama defensively and sometimes testily insisted on Thursday that his administration, not oil giant BP, was calling the shots in responding to the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.
“I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure this thing is shut down,” Obama declared at a news conference in the East Room of the White House. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill dominated the hourlong session.
He called the spill, now in its sixth week, an “unprecedented disaster” and blasted a “scandalously close relationship” between Big Oil and government regulators.
Obama announced new steps to deal with the aftermath of the spill, including continuing a moratorium on drilling permits for six months. He also said he was suspending planned exploration drilling off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and on 33 wells under way in the Gulf of Mexico.
Those steps, along with new oversight and safety standards also to be announced, are the results of a 30-day safety review of offshore drilling conducted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Obama’s direction. Salazar briefed Obama on its conclusions Wednesday night in the Oval Office.
The president’s direct language on being in charge of the spill, which he repeated several times, marked a change in emphasis from earlier administration assertions that, while the government was overseeing the operation, BP had the expertise and equipment to make the decisions on how to stop the flow.
Taking control carried its own political risks for Obama, because any failure to stop the gusher would then belong to the president. But Obama could suffer politically if his administration was seen as falling short of staying on top of the problem or not working hard to find a solution.
“The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort,” Obama said. He was reacting to criticism that his administration had been slow to act and had left BP in charge of plugging the leak.
Obama said many critics failed to realize “this has been our highest priority.”
“My job right now is just to make sure everybody in the Gulf understands: This is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about. The spill.”
As he spoke, oil BP worked furiously to pump mud-like drilling fluid into the blown-out well.
Chief of agency overseeing offshore drilling quits
WASHINGTON — The head of the agency that oversees offshore drilling resigned under pressure Thursday amid fallout from the Gulf Coast oil spill.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Elizabeth Birnbaum’s departure from the Minerals Management Service, and President Barack Obama said he would put an end to the “scandalously close relationship” between regulators and the oil companies they oversee.
Salazar made the announcement about Birnbaum at a congressional hearing where Birnbaum was to testify. She never showed, and her boss said she left government “on her own terms and her own volition.”
Birnbaum, in charge since July 2009, left after criticism from lawmakers of both parties over allegedly lax oversight of drilling and cozy ties with industry. Salazar recently announced he was breaking up the agency into three parts.
In a three-sentence resignation letter, Birnbaum wrote: “As you move forward with the reorganization of Minerals Management Service you will be requiring three new leaders. … I wish you every good fortune in the reorganization of the bureau.”
Coast Guard OKs part of La.’s sand berm plan
NEW ORLEANS — Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen has approved portions of Louisiana’s $350 million plan to try to protect its coastline from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with a wall of sand.
Allen announced Thursday that about half of the proposed 86-mile network of sand berms could move forward. He said other sections would not help keep the oil out and could have interfered with cleanup.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was at East Grand Terre Island, a barrier island west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, when the Coast Guard sent out a news release on the berm proposal.
Jindal said he had not been contacted by the Coast Guard or the Army Corps of Engineers and did not know which sections of berm were approved.
Scientists: spill surpasses Valdez; top kill procedure continues
COVINGTON, La. (AP) — An untested procedure to plug the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico seemed to be working, officials said Thursday, but new estimates showed the spill has already surpassed the Exxon Valdez as the worst in U.S. history.
A team of scientists trying to determine how much oil has been flowing since the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and sank two days later found the rate was more than twice and possibly up to five times as high as previously thought.
Even using the most conservative estimate, the leak has grown to nearly 18 million gallons over the past five weeks. In the worst case scenario, if 39 million gallons has spilled, the oil would fill enough jugs to stretch from the Louisiana marshes to Prince William Sound in Alaska. That’s where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons.
“Now we know the true scale of the monster we are fighting in the Gulf,” said Jeremy Symons, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. “BP has unleashed an unstoppable force of appalling proportions.”
BP and the Coast Guard estimated soon after the explosion that about 210,000 gallons a day was leaking, but scientists who watched underwater video of well had been saying for weeks it was probably more.
U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said two different teams of scientists calculated the well has been spewing between 504,000 and more than a million gallons a day.
BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said the previous estimate came from industry experts and scientists based on the best data available at the time. Asked for the company’s response to the new numbers, he replied: “It does not and will not change the response. We are going all out on our response.”
Marine scientists also said Thursday they have discovered a massive new plume of what they believe to be oil deep beneath the Gulf, stretching 22 miles from the leaking wellhead northeast toward Mobile Bay, Ala. The discovery by researchers on the University of South Florida College of Marine Science’s Weatherbird II vessel is the second significant undersea plume recorded since the rig exploded.