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Monday, June 21, 2010

As oil hits more beaches, politicians make more waves

A House member questions BP's honesty about how much crude could leak in a worst-case scenario.

Deepwater Horizon

The effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill continued to spread eastward Sunday, leaving tar balls along the white beaches of the Florida Panhandle, while Washington lawmakers maneuvered through the tricky political currents of the unprecedented environmental disaster.

Navarre Beach was among several tourist-dependent west Florida towns where tar balls were reported Sunday and where cognitive dissonance reigned: Everyone knew that the oil had come and that millions more gallons were threatening offshore. But many tourists happily indulged in sand and surf anyway.

Caitlyn Blizzard, an assistant in the Santa Rosa County public information office, said that despite the official report of tar balls, she walked Navarre Beach on Sunday morning and saw nothing but blue water and pearly sand.

"People are in the water right now on Navarre Beach," she said Sunday afternoon. "The water's clear. It's beautiful."

Cortnee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Deepwater Horizon unified response in Mobile, Ala., said "strike teams" were established along the coast to pick up tar balls as they were reported.

In Washington, the office of Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) made waves with the release of an internal BP document that described a number of possible flow rates from the well, including one estimate that as many as 100,000 barrels per day could gush out if the equipment around the top of the well, including the failed blowout preventer, were removed.

In a news release, Markey's staff said that at the time Congress received the document, BP officials were telling lawmakers that 60,000 barrels per day was the worst-case scenario. Markey, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement that the document raised "very troubling questions about what BP officials knew and when they knew it."


But the equipment remains at the top of the well. BP doesn't plan to remove it until relief wells enable the company to plug the gusher, spokesman Toby Odone said. He called the 100,000 number "obviously a theoretical calculation based on the removal of the blowout preventer."

"It's not like anybody's trying to hide anything," he said.

Odone said BP gave the document to Congress on May 4. Markey's office did not respond to queries about why it had waited until now to release it.

Markey accused BP of incompetence at the minimum.

"Right from the beginning, BP was either lying or grossly incompetent," Markey said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel also criticized BP, but he saved his harshest words for congressional Republicans. Emanuel said Rep. Joe L. Barton's apology to BP last week should remind voters of what would happen if the GOP won control of the House this fall.

Barton, a Texan and the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, apologized to BP at a House hearing Thursday for what he called a White House "shakedown" that resulted in BP agreeing to establish a $20-billion claims fund for individuals and businesses hurt by the spill. Hours later, under pressure from Republican leaders, Barton retracted his apology, but Emanuel said Sunday that it reflected the philosophy of Republicans at large.

"The approach here expressed and supported by other voices in the Republican Party sees the aggrieved party as BP, not the American — not the fishermen and the communities down there affected," Emanuel said on ABC's "This Week."

"And that would be the governing philosophy. And I think what Joe Barton did is remind the American people, in case they've forgotten, this is how the Republicans would govern."

The day before Barton's apology, a conservative group in the House, the Republican Study Committee, called the BP agreement "a Chicago-style political shakedown." Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, among others, also criticized the pact.

On Sunday, the House minority leader, Rep. John A. Boehner (R- Ohio), criticized the Obama administration's reaction to the leak, saying that it "has been slow" and that federal regulators have fallen down on the job.

"This is a failure of government," Boehner told "This Week." "Government is there to protect our shores, to protect our environment."

Gulf Coast politicians from both parties tempered earlier criticism of the federal government's response to the spill.

"I think the federal government's done more right than wrong," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, said on "Meet the Press."

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) told "Meet the Press" that after initial dismay at the federal response, she has seen "in the last several weeks, much more of the team coming together" to mitigate the spill damage.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, said via Twitter that the gulf spill required "divine intervention as man's efforts have been futile." Palin also alluded to a Louisiana legislative resolution calling for June 20 to be a day of "unified, intercessory prayer" over the catastrophe.

The federal government estimates that 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil are gushing daily from the well. BP is continuing its attempt to build a system to collect it all, and says a process that can handle up to 80,000 barrels daily could be ready as early as mid-July.

On Saturday, Odone said, the current system collected about 22,000 barrels of oil.

The long-term plan for stopping the leak involves drilling two relief wells to intersect and plug the original well with heavy fluid deep below the sea floor.

The first of the wells is about 3,000 feet from the intersection point, Odone said, and it should hit the original well bore by early August.
richard.fausset@latimes.com
jtankersley@latimes.com

Fausset reported from Atlanta and Tankersley from Washington.

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