Originally posted by Robin Pagnamenta - Times Online - April 30, 2010
The US today banned all new offshore drilling as crude oil from the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig began lapping at the shores of sensitive marshland at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Speaking on US television, David Axelrod, a White House senior adviser, declared that no company would be allowed to proceed with exploration in new areas off the US coast until an investigation into the cause of the disaster had been completed.
He said: “No additional drilling has been authorised and none will until we find out what happened ... and whether there was something unique and preventable here.”
BP, Britain’s second-largest company, is already facing a deluge of litigation after the disaster.
Lawsuits naming BP have been filed by the family of the missing oil worker Shane Roshto, as well as by Louisiana fishing companies.
Last month President Obama lifted a ban on offshore drilling and oil and gas exploration, saying that it was vital to America’s energy independence.
Charlie Crist, the Republican Governor of Florida, called the slick was frightening and said that it had forced him to reconsider his support for offshore drilling.
“It’s the last thing in the world I would want to see happen in our beautiful state,” he said.
“Until you actually see it, I don’t know how you can comprehend and appreciate the shear magnitude of that thing.”
The first fingers of oily sheen reached the mouth of the Mississippi River on Thursday evening local time, 24 hours ahead of previous estimates by the US Coast Guard.
As the sun began to set over the fragile wetlands surrounding the Mississippi, the oil was slipping into the South Pass of the river and already lapping at the shoreline in long black lines.
Although US government agencies and BP set up 100,000ft of booms to protect coastal areas from the slick, rough seas sent 5ft (1.5m) waves of oily water over the top of the booms into the river.
The oil slick is on its way to becoming Americas's worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening more than 400 species of fish, birds and other wildlife in one of the world's richest marine environments.
Even before the spill neared the coast, wildlife experts said that a toxic mix of chemicals was poisoning the waters of endangered marine life and fisheries, including one of only two breeding grounds worldwide for Atlantic bluefin tuna.
The Gulf’s abundant oyster and shrimping grounds are also in danger of severe damage.
Valuable fisheries for oyster and menhaden fish are at risk, as is the breeding of endangered turtles. If the slick is taken by the Gulf’s defining current, known as the Loop, the rare manatees of the Florida panhandle could be under threat.
"It is of grave concern," said David Kennedy, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "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-boggling."
Fear turned to fury among local residents as BP was accused of playing down the scale of disaster after it emerged that five times more oil was surging into the Gulf from the seabed than had been calculated previously.
There is a growing sense among the fishermen and tourist guides dependent on the wetlands for their livelihood that the Government has once more failed them, just as it did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
President Obama was briefed on the disaster and ordered Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security Secretary, and Ken Salazar, the Interior Secretary, down to the Gulf Coast today.
Mr Obama also ordered the US military to get involved in the increasingly urgent effort to contain the disaster, an operation now involving 1,100 people and more than 70 vessels. Last night Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana, declared a state of emergency.
Cade Thomas, a fishing guide in Venice, said that he was terrified that his livelihood would be destroyed. He said that he did not know whether to blame the Coast Guard, the federal Government or BP.
"They lied to us. They came out and said it was leaking 1,000 barrels when I think they knew it was more. And they weren't proactive," Mr Thomas said. "As soon as it blew up, they should have started wrapping it with booms."
US experts are now fearful that it could take weeks, or even months, to shut off the ruptured pipe — yesterday a third leak was discovered — meaning that within two months the spill would surpass the 11 million gallons that leaked from the Exxon Valdez tanker in the notorious spillage off the Alaska coast in 1989, America’s previous worst oil disaster.
Mr Jindal said that at least ten wildlife management areas and refuges in his state and neighbouring Mississippi were in the oil plume's path.
The 100-mile by 45-mile slick also threatens the Alabama coast.
The cause of the blast, which killed 11 of the 111 workers on board and set the rig ablaze before it eventually sank, has yet to be determined. But much depends on where the slick ends up and the success of the efforts to contain it.
The type of oil leaking from the sea floor is complicating matters. It is called sweet crude, which contains heavy compounds, known as asphaltenes, that do not burn easily or evaporate, even on the warm Louisiana coast.
With light crude, both burning and chemical dispersants work well, but neither tactic is very effective against sweet crude, raising fears that nothing can be done to stop the oil reaching shore.