Unless he can personally reach down and cap the oil leak about a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico waters, President Obama's visit to first hand inspect the impending damage is political show time.
The president flew to the Gulf Coast Sunday 12 days after the oil platform exploded and sank spewing about
210,000 gallons of gaseous crude oil daily with no containment in sight. Certainly, the president has visions of the political relations disaster in his mind after President Bush's administration's slow response to Hurricane Katrina victims.
The Obama administration already is receiving complaints of unpreparedness by some fishermen although most are tepid and fail to recognize that BP, the oil platform operators, not only underestimated the extent of the spillage but were woefully unprepared for such an event as well as reluctantly tardy in seeking federal help.
Some said that not enough booms had been placed in the area, and fishermen noted the growing public concern over contaminated seafood, though they admitted such worries were premature as of Sunday.
Doug Helton, a fisheries biologist who coordinates oil spill responses for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Saturday that more than 600,000 feet of boom had been deployed or was being readied for deployment. He acknowledged that there was just not enough of it to cover the vast shoreline from Louisiana to Florida.
News coverage of the spill has treated Americans to the best of what journalists can offer. Because the leak may not be plugged for months and spilling at the rate of 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) daily, it will create an economic Armageddon, impairment to the shipping channel to the Mississippi River and an ecological disaster to Gulf Coast sea creatures and thousands of bird species. The spill is expected to surpass damages of the Exxon Valdez on the pristine Alaska coastline in 1989.
The news is not all scare tactics. Let me point out several of my favorites in understanding the magnitude of this event.
A small nonprofit group called SkyTruth with one paid staffer in West Virginia caught Deepwater Horizon low-balling the spill at 1,000 barrels daily. By analyzing satellite and radar data SkyTruth forced federal and BP officials to revise their estimates to 5,000 barrels. That was on April 22, two days after the fire and explosion that eventually sank the oil platform.
On Saturday, SkyTruth revised its analysis to 25,000 barrels daily and estimated the oil slick the largest oil spill in American history.
Cost Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the government's response, disputed the data and didn't care what it was, the critical question was how and when the leak would be capped.
John Amos, SkyTruth's president, said his volunteer staff downloads digital imagery from satellites, map-rectifies it and uses National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration standard methods
to extrapolate oil volume in oil spills.
That's keeping them honest.
Mitigating the damage has included efforts by the Coast Guard to collect and burn small areas of slick but all that has accomplished is polluting the air and leaving oil goblets inclined to stick like Super Glue to anything it touches, environmentalists argue.
Rather, BP officials said they were encouraged with preliminary results by saturating the leak source with chemicals to disperse the gaseous oil. The procedure prevents the spill from rising to the Gulf's surface but the deepwater ecological effects on the Gulf's floor is still under study.
What I found disgusting that before a drop of oil slick reached the Gulf shoreline, teams of lawyers from across the nation landed like vultures in Miami and New Orleans and in days had filed at least 26 federal law suits on behalf of clients they are still recruiting.
The attorneys are advertising for class action clients from commercial fishermen, charter boat captains, resort management companies and individual shoreline property owners in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Several law suits have been filed on behalf of crew surviving the oil platform brought against Halliburton Inc., BP's services contractor which caused the explosion when capping the well in a process known as cementing.
As dolllar signs dance in their eyes, the attorneys are hoping for successful prosecution that will surpass the record $507.5 million the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately awarded plaintiffs in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska.
"I want the best brief writers. I want the best deposition takers. I want the best lawyers who can work with experts," said Louisiana attorney Daniel Becnel, one of many who have set up committees to screen potential clients and identify the strongest cases.
Here's the best part.
Because of the Exxon Valdez law suit, Congress passed a law which limits the liability in awarding damages to $75 million and in this instance would apply to BP and its affiliates operating the spill from the Deepwater Horizons Inc. platform.
It also created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund by assessing an 8-cent tax per barrel (42 gallons) on petroleum drillers and import and export shippers which they, of course, have passed on to all consumers.
Up to $1 billion of the current $1.6 billion reserve could be used for losses to natural resources such as fisheries and wildlife habitats as well as to local, state and federal cleanup costs. The government can also collect damages from the operators with civil penalties and assessments.
The money is also used to prepare for spills, including anticipatory measures like stockpiling oil containment booms. And Congress can use money from the fund to reimburse the Coast Guard and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration for their spill-related expenses.
It is unknown at this early stage if BP and its affiliates have enough insurance and financial reserves on hand to cover all the anticipated court awarded damages. Either way, the oil companies are required to pay for all cleanup costs, according to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
The president is authorized to spend up to $50 million of the fund in any given year to provide instant money for its spill recovery efforts.
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