Obama summons BP chiefs to White House


ESTIMATES OF the amount of oil that has poured into the Gulf of Mexico since British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20th have doubled, with figures now ranging as high as 50,000 barrels per day.

At the same time, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who heads the US government’s response to the catastrophe, has summoned BP executives to the White House for a meeting with president Barack Obama next Wednesday, June 16th.

The latest scientific appraisals, released late on Thursday by the government’s Flow Rate Technical Group, are based on several studies and mark the third time that estimates have risen dramatically. They show the equivalent of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster is spilling into the Gulf approximately every week.

The Deepwater Horizon well may have already leaked 1.08 million barrels of oil, making it the largest US ecological disaster in history. Only the 1979 Ixtoc 1 spill in Mexico (3.3 million barrels) and Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Kuwait’s oil wells in 1991 (5.7 million barrels) were worse.

“These numbers are all over the board,” Marcia McNutt, who heads the Flow Rate Technical Group, told journalists. The studies were conducted before BP sawed the well’s riser pipe and capped it on June 3rd. Oil continues to gush from around the cap, and it will take several more days to confirm whether the well is leaking more than it did before the capping operation.

A study based on high definition videos from the sea floor seems to indicate that between 25,000 and 30,000 barrels were leaking daily until June 3rd.

The US government’s first estimate, on April 26th, said that 1,000 barrels were escaping the well daily. BP revised that upward to 5,000 barrels, then to between 12,000 and 19,000.

On Wednesday, Admiral Allen said BP siphoned off 15,800 barrels through the cap and into the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship, which has a capacity of 18,000 barrels per day. BP is assessing the need for a larger vessel to capture the leaking oil.

The fines paid by BP will be based on the amount of crude spilled. US lawmakers have asked the company to defer payment of quarterly dividends. BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, and chief executive, Tony Hayward, have said they will take a decision about dividends on July 27th. BP’s share price reached a 13-year low on Wednesday.

Admiral Allen wrote to Mr Svanberg summoning “you and any appropriate officials from BP” to the White House for a meeting next Wednesday. Mr Obama will attend part of the session. He has not had any direct communication with the British oil giant since the April 20th explosion.

In response to Mr Hayward’s remark on May 30th that he “wanted his life back”, Mr Obama said Hayward “wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements”. This week, Mr Obama said he wanted to “know whose ass to kick” over the disaster.

It is not clear whether Mr Hayward will attend the White House meeting. He is scheduled to testify before the House Energy Committee the following day.

In his letter, Admiral Allen wrote that “time is of the essence” in resolving the continuing disaster.

“As the president has said, our administration is not going to rest or be satisfied until the leak is stopped at the source, the oil in the Gulf is contained and cleaned up, and the people of the Gulf are able to go back to their lives and their livelihoods.”

In a poll conducted by the Washington Postand ABCNews on June 8th, 81 per cent of respondents said BP’s response was “not so good or poor”. Sixty-four per cent said they want the US government to press criminal charges and 69 per cent said the government’s reaction had been poor.