JIM LEHRER: BP poured more mud into that runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico today, with occasional halts to assess the progress. Meanwhile, President Obama announced new curbs on offshore drilling in a news conference dominated by the oil spill.
Ray Suarez begins our coverage.
RAY SUAREZ: Images from a mile deep in the Gulf showed a dirty plume billowing from the wellhead’s broken blowout preventer. It was a visual signature of the top kill operation. Crews had been pumping heavy drilling fluid called mud into the well since early Wednesday afternoon. If all goes to plan, once the flow of oil is stopped, crews will inject concrete to seal the site permanently.
ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. coast guard commandant: Mud into the wellbore.
RAY SUAREZ: The former Coast Guard commandant overseeing things, Admiral Thad Allen, appraised the situation at an afternoon briefing in Venice, Louisiana.
ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: They are pumping mud into the wellbore, and as long as the mud is going down, the hydrocarbons are not coming up. The goal is to put enough mud into the wellbore to produce zero pressure so they can put a cement plug over it. They are still in the process of doing that. So, while I said the hydrocarbons have been stopped, that does not mean the — the — the exercise was over.
RAY SUAREZ: BP said it wanted to wait another 24 to 48 hours before rendering its own judgment.
There was also word the spill now exceeds the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska as the worst in American history. The U.S. Geological Survey said scientific teams calculated the oil flow in the Gulf was two to five times more than estimates by BP and the Coast Guard. That means as much as 39 million gallons of oil may have spilled.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The federal government has been in charge.
RAY SUAREZ: In Washington, President Obama defended his administration’s response to the Gulf disaster. The president also ordered four actions affecting future offshore drilling.
He suspended planned exploration in two Alaska locations and canceled a pending lease sale in the Gulf and a proposed sale off Virginia. He also extended a moratorium on permits for deepwater drilling for six months, and suspended outright action on 33 deepwater exploration wells in the Gulf.
At a U.S. House hearing on the effects of the spill, representatives of Transocean and BP, the two companies that owned and ran the well, gave a mixed review of the moratorium.
MAN: Would you have a take on this announcement?
Mr. McKay, you first.
LAMAR MCKAY, president and chairman, BP America, Inc.: I don’t have a take directly on the announcement.
What I would say, I think it is important that we learn from this incident everything we can learn as quickly as possible that will influence, I think, practices, industry practices that go ahead, as well as the regulatory environment by which those practices occur.
STEVEN NEWMAN, president and chief executive officer, Transocean Limited: Mr. Chairman, I think a pause is prudent. I think it’s incredibly important to understand what happened. I don’t know how to give you a definitive timeline around…
STEVEN NEWMAN: … what sort of a prudent pause would be.
RAY SUAREZ: The agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service, has been roundly criticized for failing in its duties.
Today, the head of MMS, Elizabeth Birnbaum, resigned under pressure. She’s the second senior person in as many weeks to leave the agency.
KEN SALAZAR, U.S. interior secretary: Liz Birnbaum has been a strong leader.
RAY SUAREZ: Her boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, gave no clear answer as to why she left, but he did note her work to clean up the agency.
But that may be little consolation to many on the Gulf Coast, who now see a shoreline fouled with oil for years to come.
BILLY NUNGESSER, president, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana: We will lose more coastline from this catastrophe than all four hurricanes, Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike.
RAY SUAREZ: Reinforcing that grim judgment today, researchers in Florida reported finding a new underwater plume of oil 22 miles long off Alabama stretching toward Mobile Bay.
JEFFREY BROWN: As Ray said, the spill and its continuing aftermath were the focus of a news conference this afternoon, as President Obama faced pointed questions about his administration’s response.
Here are some excerpts, beginning with the president’s opening remarks.
BARACK OBAMA: The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort. As far as I’m concerned, BP is responsible for this horrific disaster, and we will hold them fully accountable on behalf of the United States as well as the people and communities victimized by this tragedy.
We will demand that they pay every dime they owe for the damage they have done and the painful losses that they have cost. And we will continue to take full advantage of the unique technology and expertise they have to help stop this leak.
But make no mistake, BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance.
For years there’s been a scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them. That’s why we’ve decided to separate the people who permit the drilling from those who regulate and ensure the safety of the drilling.
I also announced that no new permits for drilling new wells will go forward until a 30-day safety and environmental review was conducted.
QUESTION: To the many people in the Gulf who, as you said, are angry and frustrated and feel somewhat abandoned, what do you say about whether your personal involvement, your personal engagement has been as much as it should be either privately or publicly?
BARACK OBAMA: The day that the rig collapsed and fell to the bottom of the ocean, I had my team in the Oval Office that first day. Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred.
There has never been a point during this crisis in which this administration, up and down the line in all these agencies, hasn’t, number one, understood this was my top priority.
The decisions that have been made have been reflective of the best science that we’ve got, the best expert opinion that we have, and have been weighing various risks and various options to allocate our resources in such a way that we can get this fixed as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: You say that everything that could be done is being done. But there are those in the region and those industry experts who say that’s not true.
Governor Jindal obviously had this proposal for a barrier. They say that, if that had been approved when they first asked for it, they would have 10 miles up already.
There are fishermen down there who want to work, who want to help, haven’t been trained, haven’t been told to go do so.
How can you say that everything that can be done is being done with all these experts and all these officials saying that’s not true?
BARACK OBAMA: If the question is, Jake, are we doing everything perfectly out there, then the answer is absolutely not. We can always do better.
If the question is, are we, each time there is an idea, evaluating it and making a decision, is this the best option that we have right now, based on how quickly we can stop this leak and how much damage can we mitigate, then the answer is yes.
So, let’s take the example of Governor Jindal’s barrier islands idea.
When I met with him when I was down there two weeks ago, I said, I will make sure that our team immediately reviews this idea, that the Army Corps of Engineers is looking at the feasibility of it, and if they think — if they tell me that this is the best approach to dealing with this problem, then we’re going to move quickly to execute it.
If they have a disagreement with Governor Jindal’s experts as to whether this would be effective or not, whether it was going to be cost-effective, given the other things that need to be done, then we’ll sit down and try to figure that out.
And that essentially is what’s happened, which is why today you saw an announcement where, from the Army Corps’s perspective there were some area where this might work but there are some areas where it would be counterproductive and not a good use of resources.
QUESTION: Why not ask BP to simply step aside on the onshore stuff, make it an entirely government thing? Obviously, BP pays for it, but why not ask them to just completely step aside on that front?
And then, also, can you respond to all the Katrina comparisons that people are making about this with yourself?
BARACK OBAMA: Well, the — I will take your second question first. I will leave it to you guys to make those comparisons and make — and make — and make judgments on it, because — because what I’m spending my time thinking about is how do we solve the problem.
And when the problem is solved and people look back and do an assessment of all the various decisions that were made, I think people can make a historical judgment.
And I’m confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis.
The problem, I don’t think, is that BP is off running around doing whatever it wants and nobody is minding the store. Inevitably in something this big there are going to be places where things fall short.
But I want everybody to understand today that our teams are authorized to direct BP in the same way that they’d be authorized to direct those same teams if they were technically being paid by the federal government. In either circumstance, we’ve got the authority that we need.
I think it is a legitimate concern to question whether BP’s interests in being fully forthcoming about the extent of the damage is aligned with the public interest.
So my attitude is, we have to verify whatever it is they say about the damage. This is an area, by the way, where I do think our efforts fell short.
QUESTION: Weeks before BP, you had called for expanded drilling. Do you now regret that decision?
BARACK OBAMA: I continue to believe what I said at that time, which was that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall energy mix.
Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.
Now, that wasn’t based on just my blind acceptance of their statements. Oil drilling has been going on in the gulf, including deepwater, for quite some time. And the record of accidents like this, we hadn’t seen before.
But it just takes one for us to have a wakeup call and recognize that claims that failsafe procedures were in place or that blowout preventers would function properly or that valves would switch on and shut things off.
Those assumptions proved to be incorrect.
So, my job right now is just to make sure that everybody in the Gulf understands this is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about.
BARACK OBAMA: The spill.
And it’s not just me, by the way. You know, when I woke up this morning and I’m shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”
BARACK OBAMA: Because I think everybody understands that, when we are fouling the earth like this, it has concrete implications not just for this generation but for future generations.
In case you were wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen right away or the way I would like it to happen. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to make mistakes.
But there shouldn’t be any confusion here: The federal government is fully engaged. And I’m fully engaged.
Thank you very much, everybody.