After weeks of dire news from the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama stepped forward yesterday to reassure the American public that "we will get through this crisis", even if the way out is certain to be long and arduous. It is now 50 days since crude began gushing from the sea bed.
Flanked by members of his cabinet, Mr Obama spoke just as a new poll for ABC News came out showing that more than two-thirds of Americans believe the federal government has fallen short in its response. A majority also said the government should pursue criminal charges against BP.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, suggested that, even after BP has paid for compensation and the clean-up it will face "billions" in fines for the accident. Those fines could total $4,300 (£2,972) per barrel spilled into the ocean, he said.
BP – whose shares have lost about one-third of their value since the crisis began – said that the cost of the spill response so far had reached $1.25bn.
Admiral Thad Allen of the US Coast Guard told reporters that BP is now aiming to use its "top-hat" containment dome as well as other pipes being readied at the well-head to siphon 20,000 barrels a day into tankers waiting on the sea's surface. So far, it has been successfully capturing 11,500 barrels per day.
The new goal prompted further speculation among scientists that the rate of flow is even higher than the 12,000-19,000 barrels-per-day range previously indicated by government agencies.
BP has been accused of trying to underplay the rate of flow, precisely because the volumes spilled will determine the fines it will ultimately face.
Mr Gibbs said that the final determination of how much oil leaches from the crippled well before it is finally plugged will be determined by government scientists without reference to calculations by the company.
"They are the responsible party. They are going to bear the costs there," Mr Gibbs said, when asked if BP would receive the income from the oil now being siphoned off. He added: "There will be penalties that are involved in this in the many billions of dollars."
BP is accustomed to paying fines to the US government. Last year, it was forced to pay $87.43m to Washington for a violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules connected to a Texas refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers.
A recent study revealed that BP attracted no fewer than 862 citations between June 2007 and February 2010 for alleged OSHA violations at its refineries in Texas and Ohio. Of those, 760 were classified as "egregious-wilful" and 69 were classified as "wilful".
Over the past three years, the two BP refineries accounted for 97 per cent of all violations recorded in the US oil and gas industry according to the report, compiled by the Centre for Public Integrity. BP was far and away the leader among other energy companies in numbers of safety citations.
Under pressure to persuade a sceptical public that he is doing all he can to confront the ecological calamity in the Gulf, Mr Obama for the first time stressed that the crisis will not go on for ever.
"It may take some time and it's going to take a whole lot of effort. But the one thing I'm absolutely confident about is that, as we have before, we will get through this crisis," he asserted.
The President said that the government was meanwhile telling BP that as it continues to collect oil and drill the two relief wells that will allow it to plug the leak for good, it must also take steps to ensure that its operations are storm-proof. The US hurricane season, which officially began one week ago and typically peaks in August, is forecast to be unusually active this year.
Admiral Allen declined to respond when asked if he trusted BP at this stage. He singled out the company's handling of compensation claims by fishermen and others affected by the tragedy as an area where it is falling short, however. "We'd like them to get better at claims," he said. After saying at the weekend that "siege" in the Gulf of Mexico would last into the autumn, he clarified last night saying that the clean-up of the oil will take very much longer.
Tackling surface oil will take a "couple of months," Admiral Allen said, but the job of cleaning up the coastal habitats will take "years". "We're no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill. We're dealing with an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions," he told reporters.Reuse content