WASHINGTON — Three weeks after oil began spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, an angry President Barack Obama vowed Friday to end the cozy relationship between the oil industry and government regulators and impose tough new environmental safeguards on offshore drilling.
Environmentalists, however, voiced skepticism that the president's denunciation of the three companies implicated in the spill is a watershed in the long relationship between federal regulators and the oil industry, which has written many of the rules the government uses to oversee it.
"It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies," Obama said. "That cannot and will not happen anymore. To borrow an old phrase, we will trust, but we will verify."
Obama labeled "a ridiculous spectacle." the congressional testimony this week by executives from BP, the owner of the runaway well; Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded in flames on April 20; and Halliburton, the company that poured cement around the well on the day it exploded. In their testimony, the executives blamed one another for the events that led to the disaster.
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"The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't," he said.
Obama also acknowledged the growing dispute about how much oil may be flowing from the damaged well, with new estimates suggesting that the government's current estimate of 5,000 barrels — 210,000 gallons — a day may be far low. He gave no indication, however, that he'd order government scientists to develop an independent estimate.
"What really matters is this: There's oil leaking and we need to stop it, and we need to stop it as soon as possible," he said.
There also was no indication that the Obama administration is prepared to take a more active role in directing the efforts to keep the spill from coming ashore or in capping the runaway well, which one scientist told National Public Radio could be spewing as much as 70,000 barrels, or more than 2.9 million gallons of oil, into the Gulf every day.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, the official in charge of the government's response to the spill, said during a visit to Mississippi that he saw no reason for the government to assume control of operations from BP, whose efforts to cap the well one congressman Tuesday described as "flailing."
"BP is the responsible party. They have to be in charge and they have to be accountable and we have to conduct oversight," he said.
In Houston, BP officials continued to voice optimism about their latest attempt to corral the escaping oil — forcing a smaller tube and stopper into the 21-inch pipe that's the source of 85 percent of the leak and siphoning the oil to the surface.
BP Chief Operating Officer David Suttles said that undersea robots had been working since late Thursday to prepare and position the tube, and that engineers hoped to "begin operations" overnight.
Suttles said that if the tube doesn't work, engineers would try to place a smaller containment dome called a "top hat" over the leak.
If that fails, too, engineers might try to stop up the well with a "junk shot," shooting shredded debris and other trash into the well's blowout preventer, the supposedly failsafe device that's supposed to prevent a blown well from leaking.
Slowing the leak, however, will come too late for South Pass Beach, La., a small barrier island at the mouth of the Mississippi River where on Friday dozens of workers wearing hazardous materials suits used rakes and shovels to clean oily tar balls off the beach.
The area, accessible only by boat, is about 20 miles south of Venice, the southernmost town in Louisiana, and is among the first places to feel the effects of the oil slick that now covers hundreds of square miles of the Gulf's surface and an unknown area beneath it.
Most of the tar balls were about the size of a quarter, but some were as large as a fist. Workers gathered them in trash bags that were collected at a staging area, and then thrown into dumpsters on a barge. Afterward, some of the workers, who said they'd been there for a week, underwent decontamination showers.
Obama's Rose Garden appearance was part of a White House effort to head off comparisons to President George W. Bush's slow response to Hurricane Katrina and to deflect criticism from cabinet officials such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department includes the Minerals Management Service, which allowed oil companies to drill in the Gulf without all the necessary permits.
It was unclear whether the public relations effort would succeed.
Critics pointed out that Obama remains committed to expanding offshore oil exploration and drilling, and interest in the White House's role in issuing permits for more offshore drilling, now and during the Bush administration, remained high.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., the chairman of the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, wrote to the White House Council on Environmental Quality asking whether it had played any role in allowing applications for drilling permits in the Gulf to avoid scrutiny under the nation's top environmental law.
At issue was a decision by the Minerals Management Service during the Bush administration to provide "categorical exclusions" to the National Environmental Policy Act for the exploratory and drilling permits.
Rahall made a similar request to Interior Secretary Salazar.
Some environmentalists welcomed the president's promise to reorganize the government's offshore drilling regulatory apparatus.
"It's absolutely essential that, going forward, we put in place every necessary safeguard and protection so that a tragedy like this oil spill does not happen again," Obama said.
He said that the government has ordered immediate inspections of all deepwater operations in the Gulf and won't approve any permits for new drilling pending a review that's due to him on May 28.
He promised a new examination of environmental procedures for oil and gas exploration, but he also said that "domestic oil drilling continues to be one part of an overall energy strategy" that he supports.
That left some questioning the sincerity of his commitment.
"It's hard to square his frustration about the Deepwater drilling disaster with his decision to let more drilling go forward," said Jackie Savitz, the senior campaign director for the environmental group Oceana.
Kieran Suckling, the director of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group, compared Interior Secretary Salazar to President Bush's disgraced Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown, whom Bush praised just before firing him after Hurricane Katrina.
"I think the president will come to regret this speech as his 'Heckuva job, Brownie' moment," Suckling said. "Today's speech can be summed up as, 'Heckuva job, Kennie.' "
(Talev and Schoof reported from Washington, Lebovich of the Miami Herald from Miami. Contributing to this report were Anita Lee of the Biloxi Sun-Herald in Biloxi, Miss.; Travis Heying of the Wichita Eagle in South Pass Beach, La.; and McClatchy correspondents Les Blumenthal, Kevin G. Hall, Erika Bolstad, Lesley Clark and Marisa Taylor in Washington.)
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