President Barack Obama faced tough questions from the press on Thursday about the administration's response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And in a press conference that lasted for more than an hour, he attempted to strike a delicate balance between defending the administration's response, blaming BP, and asserting that the federal government has taken the lead in the response effort.

"The day the rig collapsed and fell to the bottom of the ocean, I had my team in the Oval Office that first day," said Obama. "Those who think we were slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts."

But after repeated questions from reporters which highlighted the public's frustration with the administration's handling of the disaster, Obama was more conciliatory. "I take responsibility," he said. "It is my job to make sure everything is done to shut this down."

The president did admit that on at least one front—forcing BP to release video and other information related to the spill—the government's response had been sluggish. "The administration pushed them to release it, but they should have pushed them sooner," he said. "There was a lag of several weeks that I think shouldn't have happened."

Obama's admission came on the day—five weeks since the explosion—that the administration released a new estimate of the spill that was two to five times higher than the earlier assessment.

Obama also announced new plans on offshore development intended to quell concerns about other drilling activities in the wake of the Gulf disaster. He extended all new drilling operations for six months or until a commission that he announced last week to study the question completes its report. He suspended planned exploration in the Arctic that was to begin in July and a proposed lease sale off the Virginia coast. Operations at 33 deep-water rigs in the Gulf are also on hold until further evaluation of their safety and planning can be done. The president also took aim at the "cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship" between the industry and the government agencies intended to regulate it.

This walk-back from offshore drilling also prompted some probing questions from reporters. Pressed on whether he regrets his March 31 announcement of a major expansion of offshore drilling, Obama held firm. "I believe what I said at that time, which was that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall energy mix," he said. "It has to be part of our overall energy strategy." He pushed the blame back on oil companies. "Where I was wrong was in the belief that the oil companies had their acts together when it came to worst-case-scenario," he said.

Obama also emphasized that the spill highlights the need for Congress to pass a broader climate and energy agenda—which was at least part of the reason drilling was offered as an olive branch to moderates in the first place. "If nothing else this disaster should serve as a wake up call that it's time to move forward with this legislation," he said.

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The Coast Guard reports this morning that the "top-kill" of the Gulf gusher has succeeded in stopping the flow of oil and gas. When pressure stabilizes, they can begin cementing the well to permanently close it, now five weeks after the spill began.

Meanwhile, things are looking worse for BP, the operator of the rig and owner of the well. The government team assembled to evaluate the flow rate said today that preliminary findings indicate the spill is two to five times the size of previous estimates.

The investigations into the spill have also yielded a lot of bad press for BP. In Louisiana, one of the company's officials on the Deepwater Horizon at the point of the explosion, Robert Kaluza, invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than testifying at a Coast Guard hearing. He was expected to appear today, but has backed out to avoid self-incrimination.

And according to documents released by a Congressional investigator, several days before the blast BP officials decided to use a type of casing for the well known to be the riskier option in order to cut costs. The exploration at this well was six weeks behind schedule; the Deepwater Horizon was supposed to move to a new site on March 8–about six weeks before the blast. The New York Times reports that, at an estimated cost of $500,000 per day, a 43-day-delay had added up to more than $21 million for BP by that point, possibly increasing the desire to cut corners.

Even if BP has succeeded in stopping the well, there's still no end in site for the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf. Wildlife officials report that more than 300 sea birds, nearly 200 turtles and 19 dolphins have been found dead along the Gulf Coast.

But will Americans actually see this still-unfolding Gulf disaster? Newsweek reports today that, like our own Mac McClelland, photographers in the Gulf have been barred from access to spill sites where the impacts of the disaster are most apparent.

BP might have finally controlled the well, but efforts to control the story appear to be ongoing.

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The amount of oil that has been leaking into the Gulf for the past 37 days might be as high as 25,000 barrels per day, according to preliminary results from the government team assembled to evaluate the flow. Based on a variety of estimates from team, the spill is most likely between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day, the head of the team said Thursday.

There were several teams evaluating satellite images of the surface of the Gulf and video from the spill site. Even the lowest estimate from one team, 11,000 barrels per day, is twice the amount that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated on April 29. The highest estimate was 25,000 barrels, which would be five times the previous estimate.

U.S. Geological Survey Director Dr. Marcia McNutt, who is heading the spill rate team, emphasized in a call with reporters that these are preliminary figures and teams continue to evaluate the flow. McNutt also said that the initial low figures didn't influence response efforts, which have "been based on a worst-case, catastrophic scenario." "The scale of response would have been the same at 1,000 barrels a day or 100 times that," McNutt said.

NOAA head Jane Lubchenco has said that the 5,000 figure "was always understood to be a very rough estimate." "That number was useful and the best estimate at the time," she told reporters last week.

The new figures give a better, if still wide-ranging, estimate of the total amount of oil now in the Gulf of Mexico. Even going by the lower estimate, a total of 17 million gallon have hemorrhaged into the water. The highest estimate would put the spill at nearly 40 million gallons so far. Either number would mean that the Gulf spill has eclipsed the Exxon Valdez, which dumped 10.8 million gallons into the Prince William Sound, as the worst oil spill in US history.

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MMS Head Fired

MSNBC is reporting that Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the beleaguered Minerals Management Service, has been fired. The division of the Department of Interior responsible for overseeing oil and gas development has been under fire for lax oversight of offshore drilling.

Birnbaum, a former official with the conservation group American Rivers, has run the division since last July. She faced grilling before a House panel yesterday about the agency's role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

We'll have more when it becomes available.

UPDATE: Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar issued a statement saying that Birnbaum "resigned today on her own terms and on her own volition." "Elizabeth Birnbaum is a strong and effective person and leader," said Salazar. "She helped break through tough issues including offshore renewable development and helped us take important steps to fix a broken system. She is a good public servant."

In her statement, Birnbaum pointed back to the Bush administration (without naming it directly) for leaving the MMS a deeply dysfunctional institution when she took over last July. She said that she hopes the reforms that Salazar has proposed for the agency "will resolve the flaws in the current system that I inherited." Here's her letter of resignation.

Believe it or not, some 31,000 miles of oil pipelines snake across the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. New research indicates these pipelines are vulnerable to hurricanes—including waves and currents that persist for up to a week after the passage of a cyclonic storm.

The new study is based on unprecedented observations of the eye of 2004's category-4 Hurricane Ivan as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico directly above a network of sensors on the ocean floor designed to monitor continental shelf currents.

Measurements taken under that hurricane showed storm-propelled currents powerful enough to dig up the seabed down to 300 feet. Computer modelling indicates that hurricanes considerably weaker than Ivan could still tear up the seafloor to 300 feet and cause submarine landslides.

"The stress on the sea floor lasted nearly a week," says Hemantha Wijesekera, lead author of the study out of the Naval Research Laboratory, Stennis Space Center, Mississippi. "It doesn't go away, even after the hurricane passes. Hurricane stress is quite large, so the oil industry better pay attention."

The paper, [pdf] "High Sea-Floor Stress Induced by Extreme Hurricane Waves" is forthcoming in the 10 June issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

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BP has dumped about 10,000 gallons of dispersants onto and under Gulf waters in the past month. The idea being that the dispersants will break the oil down into small enough globs for natural marine microbes to clean up.

We know these dispersants are toxic. In lab tests, Corexit—BP's favorite—kills shrimp and fish. Now David Valentine, a biogeochemist at the University of California Santa Barbara, warns the stuff may be riskier than just its toxicity. Corexit may undermine the microbes that naturally eat oil.

Some of the most potent oil-eaters—Alcanivorax borkumensis—are relatively rare organisms that have evolved to eat hydrocarbons from naturally occurring oil seeps. Valentine tells Eli Kintisch at Science Insider that after spills, Alcanivorax tend to be the dominant microbes found near the oil and that they secrete their own surfactant molecules to break up the oil before consuming the hydrocarbons. Other microbes don't make surfactants but devour oil already broken into small enough globs—including those broken down by Alcanivorax.

What we don't know is how the surfactants in Corexit and its ilk might affect the ability of Alcanivorax and other surfactant-makers to eat oil. Could Corexit exclude Alcanivorax from binding to the oil? Could it affect the way microbes makes their own surfactants? Could Corexit render natural surfactants less effective?

The National Science Foundation has awarded Valentine a grant to study the problem.

BTW, experiments from the 1980s done on wildlife in the wild (nesting Leach’s Storm-Petrels on Grand Island off  Newfoundland) found that birds exposed to crude oil or to Corexit lost more eggs and chicks than did control birds. Of the adult birds that survived contamination with higher levels of oil or Corexit, many fewer returned to breed the following year than did control birds—intimating their exposure was lethal in the long run if not the short run.

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A major spill is always going to be a PR disaster for the oil company at fault, but these last few days have seen BP's image take hit after hit. First, the oil made landfall and journalists were barred from the beaches by BP. Then there was the news that BP overruled drillers in the hours before the blast. There were also more Senate hearings, where Senate Democrats are trying to raise the liability cap for BP to $10 billion. All this while the oil still gushes and BP's ongoing battle with the EPA over the use of toxic dispersants refuses to go away. So Pulizer Prize-winner Mark Fiore decided to lend the troubled oil giant a hand and produced his lastest animation from their perspective. Enjoy! 

This cartoon requires Macromedia's Flash Player. If you don't see the cartoon above, download the player here.

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Investigations into the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig have so far indicated that BP, the rig's operator, ignored warnings in the hours before the blast and may have overruled drillers on the scene. Those decisions may have led to the explosion that claimed the lives of 11 workers and caused the continuing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Now we hear that the chemicals the company is using to disperse the oil may be making workers sick.

In case it wasn't already clear enough, Daily Beast got a hold of a document confirming it was BP's policy to cut corners and take risks with workers' lives.

The document, drawn up by BP's risk managers in October 2002, uses the analogy of the Three Little Pigs to compare costs of building materials for worker housing. The document indicates that the company put the cost of a single worker's life at $10 million in deciding what kind of construction materials would be cost-effective. Basically, the company decided to use trailers to house workers rather than buildings that could withstand a blast in order to save money. Well before this current disaster, the company's Texas City Refinery blew up in March 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring 170 others, many of them staying in these cheaper trailers.

The piece, by Rick Outzen of the Florida newsweekly Independent News, is a chilling account of how little the company has prioritized worker safety over the years. It seems to be the standard operating method at BP; as the Center for Public Integrity reports, the company was responsible for 97 percent of the worst violations cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between June 2007 and February 2010. The company insists it's changed its ways, and has repeated that in congressional hearings over the past weeks. But everything we're learning in the Gulf indicates otherwise.

There's mounting evidence that federal regulators at the Minerals Management Service were paying zero attention to the oil industry, particularly when it came to authorizing oil spill response plans. Case in point: BP's Oil Spill Response Plan for the Gulf of Mexico lists sea lions, seals, sea otters, walruses in its evaluation of how a spill might affect local wildlife. The problem? None of these critters live in the Gulf.

And that's just one of numerous errors in BP's 583-page plan identified by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Evidently the MMS officials responsible for approving the plan, which was filed June 30, 2009, didn't give it the same scrutiny.

PEER also noticed that the plan:

  • Gives a web site for a Japanese home shopping site as the link to one of its "primary equipment providers for BP in the Gulf of Mexico Region [for] rapid deployment of spill response resources on a 24 hour, 7 days a week basis"; and
  • Directs its media spokespeople to never make "promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal," implying that BP will only commit candor by omission.

Here's that home shopping site if you're looking for a deal.

On a more serious note, PEER notes that the plan's "Worst Case Discharge" portion "features wildly optimistic projections" about the maximum size of an oil spill. It also assures that within hours of an incident, BP has the "personnel, equipment, and materials in sufficient quantities and recovery capacity to respond effectively to oil spills from the facilities and leases covered by this plan, including the worst case discharge scenarios." Clearly, that is not the case.

Needless to say, BP has been having a spot of image trouble lately. Taking notice of this, Greenpeace has asked for ideas to redesign BP's "slick green logo" and is posting the submissions on Flickr. They're getting some good ones. Some notable entries: