Image: Satellite view of spill
NASA
A NASA satellite captured this image of the Gulf oil spill on midday Monday. The oil slick appears as a dull gray on the water and stretches south from the Mississippi Delta with what looks like a tail.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 5/18/2010 1:20:28 AM ET 2010-05-18T05:20:28

A day that started with optimism from the site of the Gulf oil disaster quickly shifted to one of recriminations by lawmakers and word that President Barack Obama would appoint an independent commission to investigate .

On top of all that, the retirement of the federal official who oversees offshore drilling was revealed Monday.

Chris Oynes, the associate Minerals Management Service administrator for offshore drilling programs, informed colleagues he will retire at the end of the month, according to an e-mail sent to agency officials and obtained by The Associated Press.

Oynes was regional director in charge of Gulf of Mexico offshore oil programs for 13 years before he was promoted in 2007 to associate director in charge of all offshore activities.

Oynes had come under criticism for being too close to the industry the agency oversees. His departure comes after Obama last week vowed to end a "cozy relationship" between the MMS and industry.

Obama also will be creating a presidential commission via executive order, an administration source said Monday.

It will be similar to panels created to investigate the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a public announcement.

The panel will study oil industry practices, rig safety, regulation and governmental oversight, including the "structure and functions" of the Minerals Management Service, the source said.

No current government employee or elected official will be eligible to serve on the commission, the official said.

Criminal inquiry demanded
In Congress, lawmakers on Monday voiced anger towards federal regulators and oil companies in the aftermath of the Gulf disaster, with some going as far as demanding a criminal investigation.

Video: Keys, Atlantic in path? Democrats on the Senate Environment Committee urged the Justice Department to open an inquiry.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the committee, said that operators of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig did not appear to have required equipment and technology needed to respond to the spill, which has dumped millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.

Six other Democratic senators and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont joined Boxer in requesting the Justice Department investigation.

Boxer said BP officials appeared to misstate the company's ability to respond to an oil spill resulting from a blowout.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee, meanwhile, heard testimony from government and BP officials.

Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., told BP America President Lamar McKay that he felt the Minerals Management Service, which oversees the offshore drilling, "did not ask enough of you" and that the companies involved "did not do enough" on their part.

Lieberman also voiced ire that while the MMS had been asked to send a representative to the hearing, the federal agency had declined to do so.

Tar balls off Key West
Late Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard said 20 tar balls were found off Key West, Fla., but the agency stopped short of saying whether they came from the Gulf spill.

The Coast Guard said the Florida Park Service found the tar balls during a shoreline survey. The balls were 3-to-8 inches in diameter.

Coast Guard Lt. Anna K. Dixon said no one at the station in Key West was qualified to determine where the tar balls originated. They have been sent to a lab for analysis.

In other developments, reports of large, dense plumes of oil were challenged by the federal officials responding to the spill.

Video: Pipe shows promise "Media reports related to the research work conducted aboard the R/V Pelican included information that was misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate," Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration, said in a statement.

She said the researchers quoted in media reports later "clarified" that they had not reached definitive conclusions about what the discovered layers are comprised of.

Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, had earlier said the researchers found more underwater plumes than they can count.

Joye said the oil itself can prove toxic to fish, while oxygen was also being sucked from the water by microbes that eat oil. Dispersants used to fight the oil are also food for the microbes, speeding up the oxygen depletion.

"So, first you have oily water that may be toxic to certain organisms and also the oxygen issue, so there are two problems here," said Joye, who is working with the scientists who discovered the plumes aboard the R/V Pelican research ship. "This can interrupt the food chain at the lowest level, and will trickle up and certainly impact organisms higher. Whales, dolphins and tuna all depend on lower depths to survive."

Hoping for 2,000 barrels a day
Also Monday, BP said it was siphoning more than one-fifth of the oil that has been spewing into the Gulf for almost a month.

Video: Official view BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told NBC's "TODAY" show that a mile-long tube was funneling a little more than 1,000 barrels — 42,000 gallons — of crude a day from a blown well into a tanker ship.

Engineers are "ramping up" the flow over the next few days, he said, adding that the tube could conceivably siphon up to 5,000 barrels a day.

But later Monday, Suttles backed off the 5,000 number, telling a news conference that the company hoped to siphon off 2,000 barrels a day with the system.

Suttles also said BP will never again try to produce oil from the well, though he did not rule out drilling elsewhere in the reservoir. "The right thing to do is permanently plug this well, and that's what we will do," Suttles said.

The company and the U.S. Coast Guard have estimated about 5,000 barrels have been spewing out each day. Some outside experts have estimated several times as much.

Engineers finally got the containment system working on Sunday after weeks of failed solutions — however, millions of gallons of oil are already in the Gulf of Mexico.

Crews will slowly ramp up how much oil the tube collects over the next few days. They need to move slowly because they don't want too much frigid seawater entering the pipe, which could combine with gases to form the same ice-like crystals that doomed the previous containment effort.

As engineers worked to get a better handle on the spill, a researcher told The Associated Press that computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat is being sent later this week to collect samples and learn more.

"This can't be passed off as 'it's not going to be a problem,'" said William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science. "This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys."

BP engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea. Crews got it working after several setbacks.

BP failed in several previous attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that got clogged with icy crystals. They have used chemicals to disperse the oil. Tar balls have been sporadically washing up on beaches in several states, including Mississippi where at least 60 have been found. But so far, oil has not washed ashore in great quantities.

Hogarth said a computer model shows oil has already entered the loop current, while a second shows the oil is 3 miles from it — still dangerously close. The models are based on weather, ocean current and spill data from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.

Hogarth said it's still too early to know what specific amounts of oil will make it to Florida, or what damage it might do to the sensitive Keys or beaches on Florida's Atlantic coast. He said claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after traveling over hundreds of miles from the spill site were not mollifying.

Damage is already done, with the only remaining question being how much more is to come, said Paul Montagna, from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University.

"Obviously the quicker they plug this the better, but they are already having a tremendous effect on the environment," he said. "In the end, we have to figure out how much is actually pouring into the Gulf."

Two setbacks over the weekend illustrate how delicate the effort is. Early Sunday, hours before a steady connection was made, engineers were able to suck a small amount of oil to the tanker, but the tube was dislodged. The previous day, equipment used to insert the tube into the gushing pipe at the ocean floor had to be hauled to the surface for readjustment.

Choking off the flow for good?
The first chance to choke off the flow for good should come in about a week. Engineers plan to shoot heavy mud into the crippled blowout preventer on top of the well, then permanently entomb the leak in concrete. If that doesn't work, crews also can shoot golf balls and knotted rope into the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it, Wells said.

The final choice to end the leak is a relief well, but it is more than two months from completion.

Oil has been spewing since the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, killing 11 people and sinking two days later. The government shortly afterward estimated the spill at 210,000 gallons a day, a figure that has since been questioned by some scientists who fear it could be far more. BP executives have stood by the estimate while acknowledging there's no way to know for sure.

Steve Shepard, who chairs the Gulf Coast group of the Sierra Club in Mississippi, said the solution by BP to siphon some of the oil is "hopefully the beginning of the end of this leak."

He, like others, is worried that much more than the estimate is leaking and that the long-term damage is hard to measure.

"We have a lot to be worried about," he said. "We are in uncharted territory."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Whistleblower

  1. Transcript of: Whistleblower

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Almost a month now after that blowout that started all of this, a top official has lost his job. He is Chris Oynes , responsible for overseeing offshore oil and gas drilling as head of the Interior Department 's Minerals Management Service . He will step down at the end of this month. The agency is coming under intense scrutiny now, along with BP , the oil company that operated the rig. Our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers spoke with someone who tried to raise a red flag on all this a long time ago.

    LISA MYERS reporting: This veteran oil energy manager, Ken Abbott , began sounding the alarm about BP 's safety practices more than a year ago while working on another BP offshore platform , Atlantis .

    Mr. KEN ABBOTT: What I realized about BP is that they were not following normal accepted safe engineering practice.

    MYERS: Abbott became concerned because, he says, thousands of engineering drawing detailing how the complex structure was built had not been reviewed by BP engineers, and may not have been up to date.

    Mr. ABBOTT: I thought it could result in a -- in a cataclysmic failure very easily because of the inability of the operators to have the drawings they need to correctly control that platform.

    MYERS: Or to handle an emergency. Congressional hearings revealed that there also were problems with drawings on BP 's Deepwater Horizon . As workers there scrambled to save the rig, they wasted critical time because they didn't have

    accurate drawings of important equipment: the blowout preventer. Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Energy Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman): The drawings they received did not match the structure on the sea floor.

    MYERS: Still a BP spokesman today called Abbott 's allegations "groundless" and said the Atlantis crew has access to the information they need for the safe operation of the facility. Abbott was laid off by BP and is now working with an environmental group . He says he also repeatedly took his concerns to the federal agency which regulates offshore drilling , the Interior Department 's Minerals Management Service .

    Mr. ABBOTT: Basically the MMS ignored us and then they made excuses.

    MYERS: MMS has a checkered history. Fifteen reports by government watchdogs over seven years criticize the agency for being too cozy with industry, corrupt or inept. Environmentalists charge that under both Bush and Obama administrations, the MMS has often behaved as though its mission is to help oil companies evade environmental laws.

    Mr. BILL SNAPE (Center for Biological Diversity): They've continued to have a very cozy relationship with the oil industry , continued to issue permits, continued to rubber stamp whatever the industry wanted.

    MYERS: In fact, since January 2009 , MMS has repeatedly given permission to BP and other companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without getting required permits assessing the threat to endangered species and marine mammals. And critics say this practice has not changed even in the wake of the accident.

    Mr. SNAPE: After the blowup, the Department of Interior continued to issue exploratory drilling permits, which is outrageous.

    MYERS: MMS declined to comment on any of this and today refused to send a witness to testify before a Senate committee . Last week the Obama administration moved to reform the agency. Abbott today sued the Interior Department to halt operations

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