Obama picks team to probe explosion, oil leak
Published Saturday, May 22, 2010 8:34PM EDT
As oil from the massive Gulf of Mexico spill drifted ashore into delicate coastal wetlands Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that the future of offshore oil drilling was in doubt.
Obama unveiled a federal commission to investigate last month's explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig, saying that offshore oil drilling will not go forward without assurances that a similar disaster could not happen again.
"The purpose of this commission is to consider both the root causes of the disaster and offer options on what safety and environmental precautions we need to take to prevent a similar disaster from happening again," the president said in his weekly radio and Internet address.
Obama's announcement of the commission included a stern message that he will keep the pressure on firms involved in the still-uncapped spill -- BP, Halliburton and Transocean Ltd. -- but will also hold Washington accountable for mending its ways.
He slammed oil executives for the "ridiculous spectacle" of publicly trading blame, while criticizing Senate Republicans for blocking a bill to lift the liability cap on oil companies for oil-spill related damages.
In his executive order announcing the commission, he named former Democratic Senator Bob Graham and former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly to co-chair the panel, which is to report within six months.
Meanwhile, residents of the Gulf Coast are watching more and more oil beginning to ooze onto beaches and into Louisiana's delicate coastal wetlands and becoming increasingly angry over a mess that gets worse with each passing day.
"It's difficult to clean up when you haven't stopped the source," said Chris Roberts, a local councilman. "You can scrape it off the beach but it's coming right back."
Dollops of crude oil resembling melted chocolate forced officials to close a public beach on Grand Isle, south of New Orleans, and more is expected in the coming days.
"The government should have stepped in," declared Wayne Stone of Marathon, Fla., an avid diver who worries about the spill's effect on the ecosystem.
Washington is overseeing the cleanup, but the government's lead official said he 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."
Leak spurs congressional hearings
Oil industry executives, government regulators, prominent scientists and environmentalists have been criss-crossing Washington since the rig sank on April 20, hurrying from one hearing to the next.
The blowout and ensuing giant oil spill has been the subject of 10 congressional hearings over the past two weeks, with five more scheduled for this week and at least five more in June.
"It's about evenly divided between stagecraft and statecraft. They have a job to do. They're showing constituents they 'get it' in a year when many voters think they don't," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and the author of books on political "feeding frenzies."
"A lot of it is just for show. You rake the bank executives or the BP bosses over the coals. And everybody gets outraged and feels better."
Obama has steadily sharpened his tone over the past week as the oil leak -- which threatens to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska as the worst U.S. ecological disaster -- has spread with little sign it will be halted soon.
Republicans are calling it "the Obama oil spill," but despite all the political theatre, the congressional hearings have provided little new information on the causes of the explosion or the extent of the danger to the environment.
Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic Society's explorer in residence, told one House panel: "I really come to speak for the ocean."
"We are pointing anywhere we can for blame. But actually, the blame of this and other catastrophes were costs related to our demand for cheap energy," she said. "(It) is something that all of us need to bear. We all must share the cost of those who demand cheap oil at any price."
BP, which is in charge of the cleanup, said it will be at least Tuesday before engineers can shoot mud into the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf, yet another delay in the effort to stop the oil.
"It's taking time to get everything set up," said BP spokesperson Tom Mueller. "They're taking their time. It's never been done before. We've got to make sure everything is right."
BP, which was leasing the rig at the time of its sinking, has tried and failed several times to halt the oil.
The company has conceded that more oil is leaking than its initial estimate of 210,000 gallons a day total, and a government team is working to get a handle on exactly how much is flowing. Even under the most conservative estimate, about 6 million gallons have leaked so far, more than half the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez.
With files from The Associated Press