By ALLEN G. BREED and SETH BORENSTEIN
Experts warned that the uncontrolled gusher could create a nightmare scenario if the Gulf Stream carries it toward the Atlantic.
President Barack Obama planned to visit the region today to assess the situation amid growing criticism that the government and the oil company BP PLC should have done more to avert the disaster.
Meanwhile, efforts to stem the flow and remove oil from the surface by skimming it, burning it or spiking it with chemicals to disperse it continued with little success.
“These people, we’ve been beaten down, disaster after disaster,” said Matt O’Brien of Venice, whose fledgling wholesale shrimp dock business is under threat from the spill.
“They’ve all got a long stare in their eye,” he said. “They come asking me what I think’s going to happen.
I ain’t got no answers for them. I ain’t got no answers for my investors. I ain’t got no answers.”
He wasn’t alone. As the spill surged toward disastrous proportions, critical questions lingered: Who created the conditions that caused the gusher? Did BP and the government react robustly enough in its early days? And, most important, how can it be stopped before the damage gets worse?
The new top commander heading the fight against the spill in the Gulf of Mexico said Saturday that it was impossible to estimate the size of the leak pouring into the water.
At a news conference, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters that the most important step was to stop the flow from at least three leaks in the well, about 5,000 feet under water.
Allen’s comments came as experts said the size of the leak was growing and was perhaps three times larger than previously thought.
“Any exact estimate is probably impossible at this time,” said Allen, who added that the focus would be stopping the flow at the wellhead and on efforts to clean up the oil now lapping at the Lousisana shore.
Depending on the weather, more significant amounts of oil are expected to hit gulf state shores in 48 to 72 hours, he said.
“Estimates are useful, but we are planning far beyond that,” said Allen. “That’s why it is so important to stop (it) at the wellhead.”
At the joint command center run by the government and BP near New Orleans, a Coast Guard spokesman said Saturday that the leakage remained around 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, per day.
More than 1.5 million gallons of oil have leaked into gulf waters since the April 20 fire and explosion on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, 130 miles southeast of New Orleans. The rig sank two days later.
The blast killed 11 workers and now threatens beaches, marshes and marine mammals — along with fishing grounds that are among the world’s most productive.
Leaks from the well have fed the slick, which is estimated at about 600 miles in circumference, Neil Chapman, a spokesman for BP, said by phone Saturday. Others have said the slick is as much as three times larger.
On Thursday, the size of the slick was about 1,150 square miles but by the end of Friday, it had tripled to about 3,850 square miles, said Hans Graber, the executive director of the University of Florida’s Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing.
“The spill and the spreading is getting so much faster and expanding much quicker than they estimated,” Graber said Saturday.
Because the leaks have not been sealed, the gulf disaster could eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster when that tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil off Alaska’s shores. Officials already have said the at-sea operations in the gulf could take months to complete.
Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said it was impossible to know just how much oil was gushing from the well, but he said the company and federal officials were preparing for the worst-case scenario.
Oil industry experts and officials were reluctant to describe what, exactly, a worst-case scenario would look like — but if the oil gets into the Gulf Stream and is carried to the beaches of Florida, it could be an environmental and economic disaster of epic proportions.
The Deepwater Horizon well is at the end of one branch of the Gulf Stream, the famed warm-water current that flows from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic. Several experts said that if the oil enters the stream, it would flow around the southern tip of Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard.
“It will be on the East Coast of Florida in almost no time,” Graber said. “I don’t think we can prevent that. It’s more of a question of when rather than if.”