VENICE, Louisiana – President Barack Obama said on Saturday that future offshore drilling would require assurances that another massive oil spill would not happen again, as energy giant BP Plc scrambled to contain a seabed well leak billowing crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama unveiled a commission to investigate the accident and vowed to keep pressure on firms involved in the still-uncapped spill -- BP, Halliburton and Transocean Ltd -- and added he would hold Washington accountable for mending its ways.
"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," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.
With frustration growing and political risks looming over the spill, Obama appointed former Democratic Senator Bob Graham and former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly to co-chair the bipartisan panel and said he wanted its conclusions in six months.
The spill has raised major questions about Obama's earlier proposal to expand offshore drilling as part of strategy to win Republican support for climate change legislation.
A month after the well blowout and rig explosion that killed 11 workers, sheets of rust-colored heavy oil are starting to clog fragile marshlands on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta, damaging fishing grounds and wildlife.
"To me from the very beginning with BP it was nothing but public relations," said Roger Halphen, a south Louisiana school teacher who has worked both in the oil industry and as a commercial fisherman.
"It's just a disaster. Everybody was sleeping on this and now all of a sudden here it is," he said of oil washing up on the coast.
BP's battered reputation has been reflected in its share price which lost more than 4 percent in London on Friday, extending recent sharp losses.
U.S. lawmakers and scientists have accused BP of trying to conceal what many believe is already the worst U.S. oil spill, eclipsing the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. It represents a potential environmental and economic catastrophe for the U.S. Gulf coast.
London-based BP, facing growing U.S. government and public frustration and allegations of a cover-up, said its engineers were working with federal scientists to determine the size of the leak, even as they fought to control the gushing crude with uncertain solutions.
It also reiterated on Friday that it was making an effort to be transparent about the unfolding situation.
"We are committed to providing the American people with the information they need to understand the environmental impact from the spill and the response steps that have been taken," BP's Chief Executive Tony Hayward said in a statement.
As ecological and economic damage mounts, analysts say the spill could become a political liability for Obama going into pivotal congressional elections in November when his Democrats already face the threat of big losses because of voter anxiety over nearly double-digit unemployment.
Creating a commission helps Obama show leadership in a crisis that has drawn heavy criticism not only of companies' safety practices but also loose government oversight.
The panel is patterned after past commissions that have probed incidents such as the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
CONFUSION ABOUT LEAK
BP's next planned step is a "top kill" -- pumping heavy fluids and then cement into the gushing well to plug it. That operation could start next week, perhaps on Tuesday, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said.
Adding to the confusion, BP revised downward on Friday an estimate from Thursday that one of its containment solutions -- a 1-mile-long siphon tube inserted into the larger of two seabed leaks -- was capturing 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) of oil per day.
A BP spokesman said the amount of crude oil it sucked from the leak fell to 2,200 barrels (92,400 gallons/350,000 liters) a day in the 24-hour period ended at midnight on Thursday.
"The rate fluctuates quite widely on this tool," Suttles told reporters at a briefing in Robert, Louisiana.
Many scientists dismiss an original 5,000 bpd estimate of the total leaking oil -- often defended by BP executives -- as ridiculously low and say it could be as high as 70,000 barrels (2.9 million gallons/11 million liters) per day or more.
A federal panel will release its estimate of the actual flow rate as early as next week, a Coast Guard official said.
Scientists fear parts of the huge fragmented surface slick will be sucked to the Florida Keys and Cuba by ocean currents.
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