Month after oil spill, why is BP still in charge?

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Days after the Gulf Coast oil spill, the Obama administration pledged to keep its “boot on the throat” of BP to make sure the company did all it could to cap the gushing leak and clean up the spill.

But a month after the April 20 explosion, anger is growing about why BP PLC is still in charge of the response.

“I’m tired of being nice. I’m tired of working as a team,” said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana.

“The government should have stepped in and not just taken BP’s word,” declared Wayne Stone of Marathon, Fla., an avid diver who worries about the spill’s effect on the ecosystem.

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That sense of frustration is shared by an increasing number of Gulf Coast residents, elected officials and environmental groups who have called for the government to simply take over.

In fact, the government is overseeing things. But the official responsible for that says he still understands the discontent.

“If anybody is frustrated with this response, I would tell them their symptoms are normal, because I’m frustrated, too,” said Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen.

“Nobody likes to have a feeling that you can’t do something about a very big problem,” Allen told The Associated Press Friday.

Still, as simple as it may seem for the government to just take over, the law prevents it, Allen said.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Congress dictated that oil companies be responsible for dealing with major accidents — including paying for all cleanup — with oversight by federal agencies. Spills on land are overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, offshore spills by the Coast Guard.

“The basic notion is you hold the responsible party accountable, with regime oversight” from the government, Allen said. “BP has not been relieved of that responsibility, nor have they been relieved for penalties or for oversight.”

He and Coast Guard Adm. Mary Landry, the federal onsite coordinator, direct virtually everything BP does in response to the spill — and with a few exceptions have received full cooperation, Allen said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was even more emphatic.

“There’s nothing that we think can and should be done that isn’t being done. Nothing,” Gibbs said Friday during a lengthy, often testy exchange with reporters about the response to the oil disaster.

There are no powers of intervention that the federal government has available but has opted not to use, Gibbs said.

Asked if Obama had confidence in BP, Gibbs said only: “We are continuing to push BP to do everything that they can.”

BP spokesman Neil Chapman said the federal government has been “an integral part of the response” to the oil spill since shortly after the April 20 explosion.

“There are many federal agencies here in the Unified Command, and they’ve been part of that within days of the incident,” said Chapman, who works out of a joint response site in Louisiana, near the site of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

Criticism of the cleanup response has spread beyond BP. On Friday, the Texas lab contracted to test samples of water contaminated by the spill defended itself against complaints that it has a conflict of interest because it does other work for BP.

TDI-Brooks International Inc., which points to its staffers’ experience handling samples from the Exxon Valdez disaster, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped audit the lab and approved its methods.

“A typical state laboratory does not have this experience or capacity,” TDI president James M. Brooks said.

The company’s client list includes federal and state agencies along with dozens of oil companies, among them BP, a connection first reported by The New York Times. TDI-Brooks said about half of the lab’s revenue comes from government work.

Test results on Deepwater Horizon samples will figure prominently in lawsuits and other judgments seeking to put a dollar value on the damage caused by the spill.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, who traveled to the Gulf the day after the explosion and has coordinated Interior’s response to the spill, rejected the notion that BP is telling the federal government what to do.

“They are lashed in,” Hayes said of BP. “They need approval for everything they do.”

If BP is lashed to the government, the tether goes both ways. A large part of what the government knows about the oil spill comes from BP.

The oil company helps staff the command center in Robert, La., which publishes daily reports on efforts to contain, disperse and skim oil.

Some of the information flowing into the command center comes from undersea robots run by BP or ships ultimately being paid by BP. When the center reported Friday that nearly 9 million gallons of an oil-water mixture had been skimmed from the ocean surface, those statistics came from barges and other vessels funded by BP.

Allen, the incident commander, said the main problem for federal responders is the unique nature of the spill — 5,000 feet below the surface with no human access.

“This is really closer to Apollo 13 than Exxon Valdez,” he said referring to a near-disastrous Moon mission 40 years ago.

“Access to this well-site is through technology that is owned in the private sector,” Allen said, referring to remotely operated vehicles and sensors owned by BP.

Even so, the company has largely done what officials have asked, Allen said. Most recently, it responded to an EPA directive to find a less toxic chemical dispersant to break up the oil underwater.

In two instances — finding samples from the bottom of the ocean to test dispersants and distributing booms to block the oil — BP did not respond as quickly as officials had hoped, Allen said. In both cases they ultimately complied.

“Personally, whenever I have problem I call (BP CEO) Tony Hayward” on his cell phone, Allen said.

At worst, oil spewed already could fill 102 gyms

Greg Bluestein & Seth Borenstein, Associated Press Writers

COVINGTON, La. (AP) — Drip by drip, day by day, the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is adding up to mind-boggling numbers.

Using worst case scenarios calculated by scientists, a month’s worth of leaking oil could fill enough gallon milk jugs to stretch more than 11,300 miles. That’s more than the distance from New York to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and back. That’s just shy of 130 million gallons.

If the government’s best case scenario is used — and only 5.25 million gallons have spilled — those milk jugs would cover a bit more than a roundtrip between New York and Washington. But the government is revising that number, with a team of scientists working around the clock to come up with a more realistic and likely higher figure.

Here’s another way to think of just how much oil has gushed out since April 20: At worst, it’s enough to fill 102 school gymnasiums to the ceiling with oil.

That’s nothing compared to the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, where there are 643 quadrillion gallons. Even under the worst case scenario, the Gulf has five billion drops of water for every drop of oil. And the mighty Mississippi River pours 3.3 million gallons of new water into Gulf every second.

Under the rosiest scenario, little more than four gyms would be filled. That’s how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration visualizes oil spill volumes on one of its websites.

At worst, the amount of oil that has already spilled is a dozen times more than the Exxon Valdez disaster. At best, it’s only half as bad. Realistically, it’s probably somewhere in that huge middle in between.

No matter what, it already is way too much oil for the delicate parts of the Gulf ecosystem, said Darryl Felder, a biologist at the University of Louisiana Lafayette.

“A lot of this is diffused now in deep layers,” said Felder, who is coordinating a seven-volume scientific encyclopedia on the Gulf. “It’s like it’s under the rug. You can’t see it on the surface, so it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind. But it’s not out of mind to most of the biologists who are concerned about its long-term effects.”

There are many uncertainties about how much has spilled. It’s not even clear if the leak began on April 20, when the rig exploded, or April 22 when the rig sank, or on April 24 when the Coast Guard first noticed two leaks.

Originally, BP and the federal government said 42,000 gallons were flowing per day. Then the number was upped to 210,000 and that’s been the best case scenario, with calculations that the spill didn’t start until April 24.

The best case scenario seems increasingly unlikely. On Thursday, BP acknowledged more oil than that is pouring into the Gulf. The company said its makeshift tube put in place to suck up the leak is siphoning 210,000 gallons a day into a barge — the full amount of oil the company said was leaking. Yet, there’s still lots of oil flowing out into the Gulf that can now be seen live on a webcam.

“Anyone can look at that and determine that even though it can’t be metered or measured, it’s significantly less than it was,” said company spokesman Steve Rinehart. “That suggests pretty clearly that taking 5,000 barrels a day (210,000 gallons) out of that stream puts a real dent in it.”

Federal officials acknowledge their 210,000 gallons-a-day figure needs to be revised. NOAA director Jane Lubchenco said the old estimate was based on a long-held international scientific formula based on surface slick observations. But the way this oil slick changed makes that calculation no longer useful, she said.

The worst case scenario is based on the upper end of broad estimates from several scientists for the daily flow rate of the leak based on video observation — somewhere between 840,000 gallons a day and 4.2 million gallons a day.

Some experts say the 4.2 million gallon rate is probably way too high, just like the government figures are way too low. That’s because somewhere around 1.2 million to 1.6 million gallons a day is all that can realistically be expected from that type of well if it were working right, they said.

Ian McDonald, a Florida State University oceanographer and expert tracking the spill, said both estimates were wrong, but the government figure is especially wrong.

“We don’t know how bad this is,” McDonald said Thursday. “One of the problems is it’s going to be very hard to know.”

McDonald said the spill’s surface slick is now more than 14,600 square miles, larger than the states of Maryland and Delaware combined.

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