Oil slick expected to hit U.S. coast reserve Thursday
HOUSTON (Reuters) - A massive oil slick from a blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to reach a wildlife reserve at the mouth of the Mississippi River on Thursday as it threatens the environmentally delicate coastline of Louisiana and three other Southern U.S. states.
President Barack Obama pledged to "use every single available resource" -- including the U.S. military -- to help the London-based energy giant BP Plc fight the crude oil spill, which was about 3 miles (5 kms) from the marshes of the Mississippi Delta and spreading faster than expected towards the shoreline, according to the Coast Guard.
The leak, after a rig leased by BP exploded last week, is spewing five times more oil than previously estimated and heightened fears of severe damage to fisheries, wildlife refuges and tourism in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
The U.S. military began mobilizing for a major effort to try to prevent environmental damage to Gulf coast states, notably Louisiana, which is still recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal warned the slick "threatens the state's natural resources," declared a state of disaster and asked the U.S. Defence Department for funds to deploy up to 6,000 National Guard troops to help clean up.
Janet Neopolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, declared it "a spill of national significance," meaning that federal resources from other regions could be used to try to fight it.
Obama said BP was ultimately responsible for the cost of the cleanup, but the rig accident, which has pounded BP's share price and those of other companies involved in the project. The accident may have ramifications for Obama's proposals, some of which are before Congress, to issue new offshore drilling permits.
Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator from Florida, said he was filing a bill to temporarily prohibit the administration from expanding offshore drilling, citing the risk of a potential "environmental and economic disaster" from the spill.
The Obama administration did not rule out imposing a pause in new deepwater drilling until oil companies can show they can control any spills that may happen.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that oil could be pouring out of the leak at a rate of up to 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day. Others cautioned that it was difficult to quantify the amount of oil escaping from the ruptured well, which is 5,000 feet (1,525 metres) under the sea off Louisiana's coast.
Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead after the rig accident.
Underwater robots failed to activate a cutoff valve on the ocean floor to stop the leak and BP is hoping a plan to cover the well with a steel cap and capture the leaking oil will avert an environmental disaster.
But that will take four weeks to put in place, by which stage over 150,000 barrels could have been spilt.
If the steel cap does not work, BP will have to rely on stemming the flow by drilling a relief well, which would take two to three months.
If it takes that long, the spill could be over 300,000 barrels, larger than the 258,000 barrels leaked in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in the U.S.'s worst oil spill to date.
The Navy said it was supplying the Coast Guard with inflatable booms and seven skimming systems.
In Mobile, Alabama, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Steve Poulin, said authorities were preparing for "shoreline impact," although it was not possible to predict exactly when.
"We have a booming strategy for coastal Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle," Poulin said, adding that some 500,000 protection and containment booms were stockpiled along the coastline for deployment.
BP SEEKS HELP
BP and the Coast Guard have mounted what the company calls the largest oil spill containment operation in history, involving dozens of ships and aircraft.
BP has admitted struggling to control the spill and has appealed for help. It has asked the U.S. Defence Department for access to military imaging technology and remotely operated vehicles to try to help it plug the leak.
Shares in BP and Swiss-based rig company Transocean Ltd fell by more than 6 percent on Thursday as investors feared a significantly higher cleanup cost. BP is down more than 10 percent and Transocean down nearly 14 percent since the rig explosion on April 20.
Oilfield services companies Cameron International Corp and Halliburton Co saw their shares tumble on fears about their ties to the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Cameron, which supplied the blowout preventer for the rig, said it was insured for $500 million of liability, if needed. Halliburton said it did a variety of work on the rig and was assisting with the investigation.
Shrimp fishermen in Louisiana filed a class-action lawsuit against BP, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron, accusing them of negligence. None of the companies had an immediate comment on the lawsuit.
The White House said Obama had been briefed on how the slick may interfere with shipping channels, which it said could affect tankers delivering petroleum to the U.S. market.
It was not immediately clear to what extent shipping in the Gulf could be affected. While the Mississippi is a major export route for U.S. grains and the region is a significant importer of crude oil, there were no reports of disruptions.
The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which handles more than 1 million barrels a day of crude imports and is connected by pipeline to the biggest U.S. refining region, said it did not expect any effect on its operations, which remained normal.
But there are signs the spill will be worse than one in 1969 off Santa Barbara, California, which prompted a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts -- a ban Obama has said he wants to modify.(Additional reporting by Joshua Schnyer and Rebekah Kebede in New York. Writing by Christopher Wilson and John O'Callaghan; editing by Pascal Fletcher)