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Officials Dispatched To Gulf As Oil Spill Worries Grow

A boat uses a protective boom to collect oil on April 28, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana.
Chris Graythen
A boat uses a protective boom to collect oil on April 28, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday and President Obama pledged his administration will use "every single resource at our disposal" as an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico crept toward shore.

Jindal made the declaration shortly after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the disaster a "spill of national significance." The federal government has sent skimmers, booms and other resources to try and contain the spill. Obama said the response could include the Defense Department.

Thursday's order allows the state to free up resources to begin preparing for the oil to reach the shore, which could happen as soon as Thursday night.

The spill could affect a wide variety of wildlife, including the oysters, shrimp and other creatures that commercial fishermen depend on to make a living.

Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and environmental protection administrator Lisa Jackson will travel Friday to the Gulf of Mexico to oversee efforts to contain the spill, which could make landfall the same day. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration also may send military ships and personnel to help control damage from the spill.

British oil giant BP confirmed Thursday that up to 5,000 barrels of oil a day are spilling from the site of the deadly oil rig explosion the occurred earlier this month in the gulf.

Doug Suttles, the oil company's chief operating officer, told NBC's Today show that oil is bubbling up from the ocean bottom at a rate of 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day. He said the company would welcome help from the U.S. Defense Department and other agencies in containing the slick.

"We'll take help from anyone," Suttles said.

As the slick has grown, so have potential cleanup costs.

"As the president and the law have made clear, BP is the responsible party" for costs, Napolitano said.

A third leak was discovered in the blown-out well, which is about a mile under water. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said it may be time for government agencies to offer up "technologies that may surpass abilities of the private sector" to get the slick under control.

Landry said more than 5,000 barrels a day of sweet crude are discharging into the gulf, not the 1,000 barrels officials had estimated for days since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank 50 miles off the Louisiana Coast. The new oil spill estimate came from the federal National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Initially, Suttles said he did not believe the amount of oil spilling into the water was greater than earlier estimates. But on Thursday, he acknowledged that the leak may be as high as the government is estimating.

"Using the satellite imagery and our overflights, we can now say it looks like it's more than a thousand. It's a range" of up to 5,000, he said.

Burning Off Oil A New Tactic

Crews turned to a plan to burn some of the oilafter failing to stop the leak at the spot where the platform exploded and sank . A 500-foot boom was to be used to corral several thousand gallons of the thickest oil on the surface, which would then be towed to a more remote area, set on fire and allowed to burn for about an hour.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn, reporting from the Unified Command Center in the Louisiana town of Robert, said this isn't tried-and-true territory.

"Nobody is sure how well this is going to work in the open Gulf," Goodwyn said. "It's not going to be a large percentage of the spill, because burning only works where the spill is thick, emulsified, and that's only about 3 percent of the entire oil sick."

He cautioned that even if the experiment works, it's not going to be a big fix. Goodwyn said the burning does not compare with planes dropping dispersants, which are having the most impact in controlling the spill.

Officials previously had estimated about 42,000 gallons of oil a day was leaking into the gulf from the blown-out well. The number would be closer to 210,000 gallons a day with the new estimates. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead, and more than 100 escaped the blast, the cause of which has not been determined.

As for the burn, Greg Pollock, head of the oil spill division of the Texas General Land Office, which is providing equipment for crews in the Gulf, said he is not aware of a similar technique ever being tried off the U.S. coast. The last time crews with his agency used fire booms to burn oil was after a 1995 spill on the San Jacinto River.

"When you can get oil ignited, it is an absolutely effective way of getting rid of a huge percentage of the oil," he said. "I can't overstate how important it is to get the oil off the surface of the water."

The oil has the consistency of thick roofing tar. When the flames go out, Pollock said, the material that is left resembles a hardened ball of tar that can be removed from the water with nets or skimmers.

"I would say there is little threat to the environment because it won't coat an animal; and because all the volatiles have been consumed if it gets on a shore, it can be simply picked up," he said.

Authorities also said they expect minimal impact on sea turtles and marine mammals in the burn area.

More than two dozen vessels moved about in the heart of the slick-pulling, oil-sopping booms. As the task force worked far offshore, local officials prepared for the worst in case the oil reaches land.

Goodwyn said the oil is likely to come ashore around the Mississippi River Delta. He said the government BP both have about 100,000 feet of surface booms to put there; another 500,000 feet of booms are available.

"There's no stopping this from coming ashore everywhere, and if it's going to be weeks of oil spilling out of this well before they can get it stopped, this could turn into quite an impressive mess," Goodwyn said.

The decision to burn some of the oil came after crews operating submersible robots failed to activate a shutoff device that would halt the flow of oil on the sea bottom 5,000 feet below.

Costs Could Top $1 Billion

BP says work will begin as early as Thursday to drill a relief well to relieve pressure at the blowout site, but that could take months.

Another option is a dome-like device to cover oil rising to the surface and pump it to container vessels, but that will take two weeks to put in place, BP said.

Winds and currents in the Gulf have helped crews in recent days as they try to contain the leak. The immediate threat to sandy beaches in coastal Alabama and Mississippi has eased. But the spill has moved steadily toward the mouth of the Mississippi River, home to hundreds of species of wildlife and near some rich oyster grounds.

Industry officials say replacing the Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by BP, would cost up to $700 million. BP has said its costs for containing the spill are running at $6 million a day. The company said it will spend $100 million to drill the relief well. The Coast Guard has not yet reported its expenses.