The U.S. government is raising the pressure on BP PLC efforts to seal an out-of-control well off the Gulf of Mexico, dispatching a team of high-ranking officials to the region and berating the company's failure to contain the damage.
More than a month after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and triggered the deepwater oil spill, BP faces mounting anger among both politicians and residents of the Gulf states, who are gaining a clearer picture of the effects of the underwater spill as oil washes on shore.
In one of his stronger statements to date, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar lashed out at the company Sunday for how long it has taken to stem the flow.
"I am angry and I am frustrated that BP has been unable to stop this well from leaking and to stop the pollution from spreading," Mr. Salazar said to reporters in Houston. "We are 33 days into this effort, and deadline after deadline has been missed."
Mr. Salazar is one of a trio of political heavyweights heading to the Gulf as anger rises over the leaking well. He and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano were to lead a Senate delegation to the region on Monday to fly over affected areas and keep an eye on the response. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson was headed Sunday to Louisiana, where she planned to visit with frustrated residents.
The latest delay comes amid BP's efforts to conduct a "top kill," which would see it inject heavy fluids into the leaking well, in hopes of choking the oil flow enough that it can cement shut the well.
A week ago, BP said it hoped to begin the top kill by this weekend. On Sunday, company officials said they now don't expect to attempt it until Wednesday. Mark Salt, a BP spokesman, defended the change as precautionary.
"We're doing things that have never been done before at that kind of depth, so it's very fluid," he said. "We're not going to do it until we're completely sure it's right."
But frustration was stirred by BP's admission that its attempts to siphon away leaking oil are bearing less fruit. The riser insertion tube tool that had collected more than 2,000 barrels per day collected 1,360 on Saturday, Mr. Salt said, although he pointed out that the levels were expected to fluctuate.
BP is currently drilling a pair of relief wells, which are intended to provide a more permanent solution to the spill. Yet those are expected to take three months to complete, and the sheer duration of the spill is raising new questions about the future of offshore exploration in the U.S., where a presidential commission is investigating and the issuance of new offshore drilling permits has been temporarily halted.
Just as the Exxon Valdez spill resulted in a round of new environmental regulations for oil tankers, energy observers expect the BP spill to bring new rules for offshore drilling, which could slow development and likely add costs.
"We are entering a bit of an unknown as the entire offshore industry is reassessed," said Stephen Fekete, a managing consultant with Purvin & Gertz Inc.
Even those who once supported offshore drilling are beginning to rethink. Oil has become such an integral part of life on the Gulf coast that Morgan City, La., hosts an annual shrimp and petroleum festival. Even environmentalists have, in the past, supported offshore drilling as a means to achieve energy independence for the U.S.
But the sight of oil washing up on land, sullying pelicans and delicate marshes, has had a visceral impact on local residents, said Tom Hutchings, an Alabama environmental consultant and small aircraft pilot who flew over the spill a half-dozen times, watching it grow.
It is so big now that "I don't have enough gas in my airplane to fly it, and I've got six hours of flying time," he said. "It's going to go on for a lot longer and we're all going to be impacted by it on the Gulf coast. If this ain't a wakeup call, I don't know what is."
Yet analysts say that the Gulf of Mexico, which produces 30 per cent of the U.S. oil supply and 20 per cent of its natural gas, is simply too important for the country to shut off the taps. If it did, the U.S. would suddenly find itself beholden to oil imports - some of which would come from environmentally and politically questionable sources - in a way few would likely support.
"Do we want to be dependent on imported oil for 90 per cent of our petroleum consumption?" asked Tyler Priest, an oil historian and director of global studies in the Bauer College of Business at University of Houston.
Robert Johnston, director of energy and natural resources at Eurasia Group, points to the "unprecedented rhetoric" directed at BP and its corporate partners, rather than the industry as a whole, as evidence that the Obama administration is unlikely to wage an attack on offshore oil as a whole.
Though delays in Gulf drilling may force major oil companies to shuffle their project queues, favouring projects in Africa and Brazil until the furor subsides in the U.S., "it's difficult to see a scenario where [the]industry shut down entirely," Mr. Johnston said.
"There's just too much of a political and economic risk in doing that."
"BP and [rig operator]Transocean and [drilling services company]Halliburton will bear the brunt of this rather than the industry as a whole," Mr. Johnston said.
With files from Associated Press