Obama Pledges Tough Inquiry Into Oil Spill

President Obama vowed Tuesday to pursue criminal inquiries into the cause of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as the crisis he called “the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history” threatened to engulf his second year in office.

President Obama vowed Tuesday to pursue criminal inquiries into the cause of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as the crisis he called “the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history” threatened to engulf his second year in office.“We have an obligation to determine what went wrong,” Mr. Obama said, appearing in the Rose Garden after meeting with the two men he has appointed to lead an inquiry into the cause of the spill, former Senator Bob Graham of Florida and William K. Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

“If laws were broken, leading to death and destruction,” Mr. Obama said, “my solemn pledge is, we will bring those responsible to justice.”

Mr. Obama’s heightened rhetoric reflected deepening frustration within the administration at the inability of BP to stop the spill, along with wide concern that the government and Mr. Obama are appearing increasingly impotent as oil laps at the Louisiana shoreline with no end in near sight.

Mr. Obama said the commission will examine the disaster and its causes, and will make sure that the country never has to face anything like this again. A full investigation will occur, Mr. Obama said, before he allows any expansion of offshore oil drilling.

“Mr. Graham and Mr. Reilly,” Mr. Obama said, “have my full support to follow the facts wherever they may lead without fear or favor.”

He said he had directed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to triple the number of federal agents and employees working along the gulf in those areas where oil has hit the shoreline, or is threatening to hit the shoreline.

As the oil spill has entered its second month with no sign of abating, and amid BP’s inability to stop the leak, Mr. Obama has struck increasingly angry tones towards BP, the industry in general, and even federal officials charged with regulating the industry. He acknowledged again that lax regulation could have led to the disaster. He said that if the commission determined that laws were insufficient, they would be changed. And if government oversight was not tough enough, he added, that will change as well.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. planned to visit the Gulf Coast on Tuesday and meet with state attorneys general, as part two of the administration’s plan to show that they are getting prosecutorial about the oil spill. Several senators have asked the Justice Department to determine whether any laws were broken in the spill.

BP was trying on Tuesday to use a dome to funnel some of the leaking crude to a tanker on the surface. A similar attempt failed three weeks ago, but officials said they had resolved some of the technical problems that forced them to abort that operation last time. If successful, the containment dome might be able to capture most of the oil, but it would not plug the leak. If it is not successful, there would be continued environmental and economic damage to the gulf region, which could, administration officials warn, stretch into August, when two relief wells are expected to finally be completed, which would allow BP to plug the leaking oil well with cement.

Adm. Thad W. Allen, the incident commander, said during a news conference Tuesday that it could take up to three days for workers to implement this latest procedure.

He said that there is no longer hope of plugging the well, and the emphasis is now on containment.

"The first thing to understand is we’re not talking about capping the well anymore,” Admiral Allen said. “We’re talking about containing the well. There’s a difference between capping the well, absorbing the pressure and being able to hold that until the relief well is completed. We’re at now where we’re containing the well, which means we’re taking the hydrocarbons that are coming up and actually bringing them to the surface."
As the disaster entered its sixth week, Admiral Allen said the United States was seeking help from abroad, from Netherlands, Canada and Mexico.

BP shares fell steeply Tuesday, the first day of trading in the United States since the company announced over the weekend that its “top kill” effort to cap the oil spill had failed. BP stock traded in late morning at about $38 a share, a fall of 11 percent from Friday’s closing price.

The spill’s unified command center said in a news release Tuesday that Rear Adm. Mary Landry will return to duties as commandant of the 8th Coast Guard District in New Orleans to focus on hurricane season preparations.

On Monday, engineers positioned submarine robots that will try to shear off a collapsed 21-inch riser pipe with a razor-like wire studded with bits of industrial diamonds. If that is achieved, officials will need at least a couple of days to position the domelike cap over the blowout preventer, which failed to shut off the well when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.

The trapped oil would then be funneled through a hose to ships floating near the well.

But, like all of BP’s efforts so far, this method had never been tried at such depths before this spill. Moreover, if kinks in the riser are now reducing the amount of oil escaping, cutting the riser could unleash a greater flow. And the greatest worry of all may be the potential arrival of hurricanes in the gulf; hurricane season officially began on Tuesday. Speaking on the “Good Morning America” program on ABC Tuesday morning, Carol M. Browner, Mr. Obama’s climate change and energy policy adviser, said she was not “going to put odds on” the likelihood that the latest attempt to stem the flow of oil would succeed. She said she was concerned about the impact that the hurricane season could have on the continuing environmental crisis.“Everyone, I think, is hoping for the best, but we continue to plan for the worst,” she said.

Engineers and technicians working on the response said that an active hurricane season, which is predicted by meteorologists, could not only push more oil ashore, but also cause weeks of delays in efforts to contain the spill.

Once a hurricane appears to be heading for the gulf, officials will have to disconnect the hose from the container on top of the well and retreat to port, leaving an unabated flow of oil into the water.

“Safety first,” said Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman. “We build in hurricane preparedness in operations, and that requires us to take the necessary precautions.”

Such precautions may stall the drilling of relief wells for weeks or more if a hurricane threatens.

“Will hurricanes trump the capping procedures or even the whole operation?” said Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, director of petroleum geoscience programs at the University of Houston. “That’s the wild card.”

Pressure is building on the Obama administration from Congress to take greater control over relief operations, and Gulf Coast residents are increasingly directing their frustration at BP as more oil washes ashore each day.

Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, drew criticism on Sunday when he said his company’s sampling of water had suggested that all the leaking oil was coming to the surface, despite several reports from independent researchers that underwater plumes were stretching for miles.

Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said Monday that he had sent a letter to Mr. Hayward requesting documentation to substantiate his claims.

Meanwhile, attention turned to the latest dome effort.

“Everything is at stake,” said Larry Goldstein, a director of the Energy Policy Research Foundation, an organization partly financed by the oil industry. “If this doesn’t work, you are looking at August before you can kill the well. That would mean oil would be seeping into the gulf, into our wetlands and into our way of life at the rate of 15,000 or 20,000 barrels a day — you pick the number.”

An immediate challenge lies in severing the riser without causing an even bigger leak. Ms. Browner has warned that the well could leak an additional 20 percent. The hope is that this would be a temporary problem until the containment dome is installed.

The dome procedure began two days after a maneuver known as a top kill was aborted late Saturday, when officials were unable to stanch the flow of oil with heavy drilling mud and other materials.

“This is a containment operation that is more straightforward,” Robert Dudley, BP’s managing director, told CNN on Sunday morning. He said containing most of the escaping oil until a relief well could be drilled was “not a bad outcome compared to where we are today.”

Mr. Dudley and other senior company officials have said they do not expect that the operation, even if it fails, will worsen the flow of oil significantly. BP officials said a week ago that they estimated that a 10 to 15 percent increase was possible until the cap is firmly in place.

But a technician working on the project expressed concerns that engineers cannot be sure how much more oil might escape if the operation fails.

“We’re all concerned about it,” said the technician, who spoke on condition of remaining unnamed because he is not authorized to speak publicly for the company. “We simply do not have the data about the internal geometry of the blowout preventer” to determine what volume of oil is being contained by the damaged blowout preventer and any damaged equipment or debris inside it.

During the previous attempt to install a containment dome, icy water rushed into the box and filled it with natural gas hydrates. Ice crystals formed from water and natural gas under the high pressure a mile down. There was no room left for escaping oil in the dome, which also became buoyant and rose to the surface.

This time, tubes will deliver heated sea water and antifreeze to the vessel. But the technician said that the formation of hydrates was still possible.

Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, Austin, said he believed there was a good chance the new effort would work, “if they can stop the hydrates from forming.” But he cautioned that a worst-case scenario existed in which hydrates disrupt the effort and more oil is released from the severed riser.

Source : nytimes