Obama defends response as BP spill exceeds Exxon Valdez

WASHINGTON – Confronted with sobering news that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is now likely the largest in American history, President Barack Obama on Thursday suspended dozens of offshore drilling projects and accepted responsibility for U.S. government errors in the handling of the mushrooming environmental crisis.

But Obama also forcefully rejected charges his administration’s response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been plagued by confusion and indecision, saying it was "simply not true" that government officials had ceded major decision making to London-based oil giant BP.

"The federal government has been in charge of the response effort . . . Make no mistake, BP is operating at our direction," Obama said at a White House news conference. "Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred."

The drama in Washington played out as residents along the Gulf Coast anxiously awaited the outcome of the latest high-stakes effort to cap the gushing oil well, and as U.S. government scientists confirmed their worst fears about the scope of the spill.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated Thursday that between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil a day have been gushing from ruptured pipes 1.6 kilometres below the surface of the Gulf.

The revised estimate shattered BP’s long-standing claim that 5,000 barrels a day were spewing from the deepwater well, prompting Obama to question whether the company was deliberately providing false information to protect their financial interests.

If the government figures are accurate, the total amount of oil spilled would be at least twice as much as the 11 million U.S. gallons – or 40 million litres – that filled Alaska’s Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez sank in 1989.

"Every day I see this leak continue I am angry and frustrated," Obama told reporters. "My job is to get this fixed. And in case anybody wonders who is responsible, I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down."

Efforts to plug the massive leak hinged late Thursday on BP’s ongoing ‘top kill’ operation, which involved pumping thousands of barrels of heavy drilling "mud" into pipes near the sea bed.

The procedure appeared, at several points during the day, to be having at least some success. But BP temporarily suspended the operation Thursday afternoon and company officials cautioned it could take days to determine whether the ‘top kill’ had worked.

A live video feed of the broken oil well on Thursday showed the drilling mud shooting out of the pipe – a development that was expected as BP tried to overcome the enormous pressure of the escaping oil.

BP said it stopped the ‘top kill’ operation later Thursday to study results and resupply the mud being pumped into the well.

Doug Suttles, a company vice president, said Thursday afternoon "the well continues to flow" but he still believed the operation would be successful.

"It’s difficult to be optimistic or pessimistic," Suttles said.

Robert Dudley, BP’s managing director, described the ‘top kill’ operations as a "little bit like arm wrestling something with about equal force" coming from the surging oil and the pumped-in mud.

"We’re driving mud as well down into the well slowly to try to push, essentially, the oil and gas back into the reservoir," Dudley said. "And it is quite a titanic struggle of forces, and it’s going to go slow. There’s no question."

The ‘top kill’ operation may represent the best chance of stopping the oil spill before August, when BP expects to finish drilling two relief wells. The completion of the relief wells would take pressure off the damaged well and make it easier to permanently cap.

With dramatic images of crude oil floating in the Gulf and dead wildlife washing up along the Louisiana coastline, no one in the Obama administration or BP want to contemplate the calamity another two months of spilling crude would bring.

"We are exploring any reasonable strategies to save the Gulf" if the ‘top kill’ fails, Obama said.

Even if the ‘top kill’ works, the Obama administration faces an enormous challenge in overseeing cleanup efforts that have been criticized by state and local officials in Louisiana as inadequate.

"Could this be Mr. Obama’s Katrina? It could be even worse," Karl Rove, former senior adviser to president George W. Bush, wrote in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal.

"Mr. Obama’s failure to lead in cleaning up the spill could lead voters to echo his complaint in Katrina’s aftermath: ‘I wish that the federal government had been up to the task.’ "

At his news conference, Obama said he was ordering a stop to work on 33 ongoing offshore drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico pending completion of an investigation into the cause of the April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

He announced a six-month moratorium on new deepwater oil leases. The administration will also halt plans to explore for oil off the coast of Alaska and cancel pending oil leases in the Gulf and off the coast of Virginia.

Obama offered a surprisingly candid assessment of the mistakes his administration made prior to the Deepwater Horizon accident, and as it scrambled to respond in the aftermath of the spill.

Addressing his decision earlier this spring to expand offshore drilling, Obama said he was mistaken to accept oil company claims that fail-safe procedures would prevent major spills.

"Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios," he said.

Obama also acknowledged his administration had failed to move swiftly enough to end corruption and lax regulation in the Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for approving oil leases.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "was in the process of making these reforms . . . they weren’t happening fast enough," Obama said.

The agency’s director, Elizabeth Birnbaum, resigned Thursday.

Finally, Obama said the U.S. government "fell short" in its effort to press BP hard enough for accurate estimates of the size of the oil spill.

"I think it is a legitimate concern to question whether BP’s interest – in being fully forthcoming about the extent of the damage – is aligned with the public interest," Obama said.

"Their interest may be to minimize the damage and, to the extent that they have better information than anybody else, to not be fully forthcoming."

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