(Reuters) – US officials yesterday conceded it is “inevitable” that oil from an uncontrolled leak in the Gulf of Mexico will hit the US coast, threatening an environmental and economic catastrophe.
“There’s enough oil out there that it is logical to think it will hit the shoreline. It’s just a question of where and when,” said US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. “Mother Nature gets a vote in this.”
President Barack Obama will visit the region today, ramping up efforts to control what has the makings of an environmental disaster and deflect criticism that his administration could have been quicker in responding to the spill.
Coastline from Louisiana to Florida is threatened by the slick, estimated to be some 130 miles by 70 miles in size.
Major shipping channels, key fishing areas, national wildlife refuges and popular beaches are in the path of the oily soup. So far, vital shipping lanes leading to the Mississippi River and huge Gulf Coast ports have not been affected, officials said.
The oil gushing unchecked from a ruptured deepwater well about 42 miles off the Louisiana coast is being pushed northward by heavy but shifting winds. A “sheen” is approaching parts of the Louisiana coast, Allen said.
In the first sign that the spill has affected US offshore energy production, the Minerals Management Service said on Saturday two US offshore Gulf of Mexico production platforms had been shut down and a third was evacuated as a safety precaution. Further shutdowns were possible, it added, but the output affected so far was very small.
The leak, which followed a rig explosion and sinking last week, has forced Obama to suspend politically sensitive plans to expand offshore oil drilling, unveiled last month partly to woo Republican support for climate legislation.
Obama’s administration is piling pressure on London-based BP Plc, the owner of the blown-out well, to do more to plug the flow of oil and contain the spreading slick. The cost of the cleanup, and the potential damage that could be inflicted by the spill, are estimated in the billions of dollars.
BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward was travelling to the US yesterday to oversee the emergency cleanup operation.
BP, the Coast Guard, the US military and volunteers have been trying desperately to disperse, block and stem the oil slick both above and under water.
The various surface dispersal efforts have shown some promise, but “the focus has got to be to stop it at the source,” said Obama adviser John Brennan.
Crude oil is pouring out at a rate of up to 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons or 795,000 litres) a day, according to government estimates, but experts said the quantity of crude escaping was difficult to measure and could be higher.
The spill response centre staffed by BP and US government officials said crews worked through the night using an underwater robot to aim thousands of gallons (litres) of dispersant at the leaking oil beneath the surface.
Other options to try to cap or seal the well, or even simply reduce the oil flow, are seen taking weeks or months.
Above the surface, several hundred boats and planes were also struggling to contain the slick and the Coast Guard worked to extend long barriers of containment booms in an effort to stop the oil from soiling the shore.
But forecaster AccuWeather.com said deteriorating weather and rough seas were hampering cleanup crews.
A Reuters photographer who travelled in a plane that flew over the Louisiana coast saw some boom barriers broken up by the wind and waves, and the booms washed up on the coast.