May 25, 2010 8:50 AM by Sharlee Jacobs
COVINGTON, La. (AP) - The Obama administration's environmental
chief dipped a small cup into the oily mess at the mouth of the
Mississippi and was surprised by what came out.
"Oh my God - it's so thick!" exclaimed Environmental
Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson who toured delicate
coastal wetlands that have been invaded by the black and orange
She was one of several top administration officials in the Gulf
Coast this week as the White House is facing increasing questions
about why the government can't assert more control over the
handling a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which unfolded
after a BP offshore drilling rig blew up April 20.
The administration's point man on the spill rejected the notion
of removing BP and taking over the crisis Monday, saying the
government has neither the company's expertise nor its deep-sea
"To push BP out of the way would raise a question, to replace
them with what?" Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who is heading
the federal response to the spill, said at a White House briefing.
All of BP's attempts to stop the leak have failed, despite the
oil giant's use of joystick-operated submarine robots that can
operate at depths no human could withstand. Millions of gallons of
brown crude are now coating birds and other wildlife and fouling
the Louisiana marshes.
Those that Jackson surveyed by boat have been battered for
centuries by hurricanes and man-made canals that led to drastic
A crew used a machine to separate oil from water and slowly
filled a four-foot high storage tank with crude. For oil deeper in
the marsh, little could be done and the vegetation there was
expected to die.
"At a minimum what we can say is dispersants didn't work
here," Jackson said. "When you see stuff like this, it's clear it
isn't a panacea."
Jackson said she worried further erosion from oil-damaged
marshes would leave her nearby hometown of New Orleans even more
exposed to future storms.
BP is pinning its hopes of stopping the gusher on yet another
technique never tested 5,000 feet underwater: a "top kill," in
which heavy mud and cement would be shot into the blown-out well to
plug it up. The process could begin as early as Wednesday, with BP
CEO Tony Hayward giving it a 60 to 70 percent chance of success.
Allen said federal law dictated that BP had to operate the
cleanup, with the government overseeing its efforts.
"They're exhausting every technical means possible to deal with
that leak," he said. "I am satisfied with the coordination that's
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suggested over the weekend that
the government could intervene aggressively if BP wasn't
delivering. "If we find that they're not doing what they're
supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way
appropriately," he said.
But asked about that comment Monday, Allen said: "That's more
of a metaphor."
Allen said BP and the government are working together, with the
government holding veto power and adopting an "inquisitorial"
stand toward the company's ideas.
BP said it is doing all it can to stop the leak. Its chief
operating officer, Doug Suttles, made the rounds of network morning
news shows to say that the company understands people are
"Clearly Secretary Salazar is telling us that we need to do
this as expediently as we can," Suttles said. "And of course we
Hayward, BP's chief executive, walked along oil-soaked Fourchon
Beach and said he had underestimated the possible environmental
"I'm as devastated as you are by what I've seen here today,"
Hayward told reporters after he spoke with cleanup workers in white
overalls and yellow boots, some shoveling oily sand into garbage
cans. "We are going to do everything in our power to prevent any
more oil from coming ashore, and we will clean every last drop up
and we will remediate all of the environmental damage."
Mark Kellstrom, an analyst with Summit, N.J.-based Strategic
Energy Research, said time might be running out for BP to continue
calling the shots. "The rhetoric is growing up in Washington for
the politicians to kick out BP and let the government take over,"
Kellstrom said, though he added that it would be a mistake.
BP had hoped to try a top kill earlier but needed more time to
get equipment into place and test it. A top kill has worked on
aboveground oil wells in Kuwait and Iraq but has never before been
attempted so far underwater.
Suttles said the biggest technical challenge is that the fluid
must be pumped in very quickly, and engineers need to make sure it
goes into the well, not out through the leaking pipe, which could
make the leak worse.
A containment device is on the seafloor, ready to be put in
place if the top kill fails or makes the leak worse.
Engineers are working on several other backup plans in case the
top kill doesn't work, including injecting assorted junk into the
well to clog it up, and lowering a new blowout preventer on top of
the one that failed.
The only certain permanent solution is a pair of relief wells
crews have already started drilling, but the task could take at
least two months.
In another source of tension between BP and the government, the
company was still using a certain chemical dispersant Monday to
fight the oil despite orders from the Environmental Protection
Agency to employ something less toxic.
"If we can find an alternative that is less toxic and
available, we will switch to that product," said Suttles.
Others have blamed the administration for not doing enough,
including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who said Sunday on Fox
News that Obama was being lax in his response to the spill.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the criticism
ill-informed and suggested Palin needed a blowout preventer, the
technical term for the device intended to prevent an oil spill from
becoming a full-scale catastrophe. The phrase has entered the
political vernacular since the one on the Gulf well failed.
"You've got to have a license to drive a car in this country,
but regrettably you can get on a TV show and say virtually
anything," Gibbs said.