Obama forms spill commission as oil mess spreads

President Barack Obama unveiled a commission on Saturday to probe the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana: President Barack Obama unveiled a commission on Saturday to probe the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as the growing environmental catastrophe hit Louisiana`s fragile wetlands.

With the federal government facing accusations of lax supervision of the lucrative offshore oil drilling industry, the president vowed to hold Washington accountable and warned that the future of the industry hinges on assurances such a disaster would not happen again.

He also sharpened his tone against the three firms involved in the spill -- BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

As frustration grew that the huge spill gushing from a ruptured well nearly a mile (1,500 meters) below the surface was still not capped a month into the disaster, Obama hinted for the first time that a criminal investigation could be launched.

"The commission shall ensure that it does not interfere with or disrupt any ongoing or anticipated civil or criminal investigation or law enforcement activities or any effort to recover response costs or damages arising out of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, fire and oil spill," his order stated.

He gave the bipartisan body headed by former Democratic US senator and Florida governor Bob Graham and former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly, a Republican, six months to report its findings and recommendations for the future of offshore drilling.

"The purpose of this Commission is to consider both the root causes of the disaster and offer options on what safety and environmental precautions we need to take to prevent a similar disaster from happening again," the president said.

In an election year rife with anti-incumbent anger rattling lawmakers` hopes of hanging on to their seats, some have narrowed their sights on the spill and who is to blame. They have already held 10 congressional hearings over the past two weeks and are scheduled to hold five more next week and yet others in June.

"In addition to the companies that were drilling, it is important also to know what the administration approved," Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in statement, noting the Obama administration approved the Deepwater Horizon drilling site and the spill response plan.

"And hopefully in the course of the testimony, we`ll be able to figure out what went wrong not only with the companies themselves, but with the oversight of the companies."

Some 1,150 vessels, over 24,900 personnel and more than two million feet of protective boom have been deployed so far by BP and federal, state and local governments. They have recovered over 9.73 million gallons of oily water so far. BP says it has already spent over 700 million dollars on the cleanup.

But for parts of the Gulf Coast`s fragile ecosystem, it was all too little, too late.

A viscous blackish-orange slick sloshed ashore Grand Isle, Louisiana, forcing officials to close its popular seven-mile tourist beach. Volunteers armed with spades were locked in a desperate battle to scoop up the oil into plastic bags.

"It was dirty at 6:00 am. We cleaned it up. When we came back from lunch it just looked exactly the same," said Eric Thomson, 19, wearing a white safety helmet, black boots and dark glasses under the hot sun.

Even at the lowest estimates, more than six million gallons of crude have soiled Gulf waters since an April 20 explosion rocked the BP-operated rig before it caught fire, sank and triggered the spill in an incident that claimed 11 workers` lives.

Just how much oil is gushing daily from the rig`s wreckage has been a major point of contention, with BP initially putting the figure at 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons. On Thursday, it finally acknowledged that an undetermined additional amount may be leaking out of the well.

Independent experts warn the oil flow could be at least 10 times greater.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who is heading the spill response, said the flow was variable, fluctuating from a low rate of 2,000 barrels a day to a high of 5,000 barrels.

Live webcam pictures provided by BP at the request of lawmakers and the Obama administration show more oil continues to spew into the Gulf from the ruptured well.

The British energy giant`s next attempt to stop the leak is a "top kill" to inject heavy drilling fluids followed by cement into the gushing well to seal it. BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said he expected the operation to take place early next week, possibly on Tuesday.

While the move has been used in shallower waters, it has never before been implemented at these depths, with robotic submarines positioning the equipment on the seabed 5,000 feet below.

Bureau Report

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