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Coast Guard Defends Reaction As Oil Nears Land

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.

The Coast Guard on Friday defended the federal response to a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico as the first waves of crude neared Louisiana's wetlands and the White House put a hold on new offshore drilling until the spill is investigated.

Sheen from the vast oil slick was beginning to penetrate the ecologically sensitive coastal marshes and barriers island, according to several reports, though the heavy oil was still offshore.

Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, appearing on multiple TV news shows, said the Coast Guard-led federal response to the spill has been rapid and sustained, and that it has adapted as the threat has grown since a drill rig exploded and sank last week. The Coast Guard, she said, has been closely monitoring efforts directed by oil company BP PLC to contain and stop the spill — which could surpass the Exxon Valdez disaster in scope — and has filled in gaps where needed.

Top White House adviser David Axelrod said Friday that no new oil drilling will be authorized until authorities learn what caused the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana Coast. "No additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what has happened here," he told ABC's Good Morning America. President Obama had recently lifted a drilling moratorium for many offshore areas, including the Atlantic and Gulf areas.

At a Rose Garden news conference Friday, Obama said he believes that offshore drilling remains an important part of U.S. energy policy. But he added that any future offshore leases issued to oil companies would be subject to stricter safety measures to prevent and control spills, NPR’s Giles Snyder reported.

Obama also sought to reassure Gulf Coast communities and counter any perception that his administration has been slow to respond. He the federal government is "fully prepared" to meet its responsibilities to them as the spill becomes a worsening environmental disaster.

Weather May Drive Spill Deeper Inland

NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, reporting from New Orleans, said that as the slick moved closer to shore, a strong smell of crude oil had penetrated the city and other parts of southern Louisiana, extending as far as Baton Rouge. Authorities urged people with respiratory illness to take precautions or remain indoors.

The National Weather Service predicted winds, high tides and waves through Sunday that could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds and lakes that line the boot of southeast Louisiana. Seas of 6 to 7 feet were pushing tides several feet above normal toward the coast, compounded by thunderstorms expected in the area Friday.

Crews are unable to skim oil from the surface or burn it off for the next couple of days because of the weather, Brice-O'Hara said.

Waves may also wash over booms strung out just off shorelines to stop the oil, said Tom McKenzie, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is hoping booms will keep oil off the Chandeleur Islands, part of a national wildlife refuge. "The challenge is, are they going to hold up in any kind of serious weather," McKenzie said. "And if there's oil, will the oil overcome the barriers even though they're ... executed well?"

Two Air Force planes have been sent to Mississippi and were awaiting orders to start dumping chemicals on the oil spill threatening the coast, as the government worked Friday to determine how large a role the military should play in the cleanup.

The C-130 Hercules cargo planes, specially designed for aerial spraying, were sent Thursday from the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Ohio, said a spokesman there, Master Sgt. Bob Barko Jr.

The planes and crews were standing ready in case they're needed, said Maj. David Faggard, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon.

"If this mission comes to pass, it would be first time we have done this in a real world scenario," Barko said, adding that the 910th Airlift Wing at Youngstown has trained for such a mission and has done other spraying such as mosquito-abatement flights after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The spill was up to five times larger than first estimated, officials said, and was drifting inexorably toward the Gulf Coast on Friday.

"It is of grave concern," David Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told The Associated Press. "I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-bogglin

Hundreds Of Gulf Coast Species Imperiled

The oil slick could become the nation's worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world's richest seafood grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters and other marine life.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday, which allows the state to free up resources to prepare for the oil’s impact.

The Coast Guard has worked with British oil giant BP, which operated the rig that exploded April 20 and then sank, to deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and to set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water's surface.

Obama has pledged that his administration will use "every single resource at our disposal." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and environmental protection administrator Lisa Jackson will travel to the Gulf of Mexico on Friday to oversee efforts to contain the spill.

BP confirmed Thursday that up to 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, of oil a day are spilling from the site of the deadly oil rig explosion in which 11 workers are still missing and presumed dead.

At that rate, the spill could easily eclipse the worst oil spill in U.S. history — the 11 million gallons that leaked from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 — in the three months it could take to drill a relief well and plug the gushing well 5,000 feet underwater on the seafloor. Ultimately, the spill could grow much larger than the Valdez because Gulf of Mexico wells typically hold many times more oil than a single tanker.

’We'll Take Help From Anyone’

Jackie Savitz, a toxicology scientist with the environmental group Oceani, says that at the current flow rate, the spill will reach the 11 million gallon mark of the Exxon Valdez spill in 50 days. The Gulf holds several endangered and threatened species, including four species of endangered sea turtle, in addition to dolphins, porpoises and whales.

"This is one of only two spawning areas for bluefin tuna in the world," Savitz said. "If larvae are exposed, there's a good chance they won't survive or their survival will be reduced because of the oil spill."

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. Napolitano called BP the responsible party for costs “as the president and the law have made clear.”

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.

The massive Gulf spill could result in billions of dollars losses for BP and curb plans to expand offshore drilling, according to NPR’s Chris Arnold.

The chairman of PFC Energy, Robin West, says BP could spend several hundred million dollars on cleanup efforts but that bigger costs could come from legal liability for spill-related damages.

"If it gets into all the bayous and estuaries and things like that, the potential liability is immense," West said. "The Mississippi River delta is one of the great spawning grounds on earth."