WASHINGTON (CN) – President Obama met with the leaders of the independent commission charged with examining the BP oil spill Tuesday and said he would appoint five more engineers and scientists to the team. “We have an obligation to investigate what went wrong,” Obama said in a speech in the Rose Garden after the meeting. “If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice.”
Calling the Gulf spill “the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history,” Obama said the commission’s role will be to “thoroughly examine the spill and its causes” in order to “prevent history from repeating itself.” He asked the commission to follow facts “without fear or favor.”
“We owe all those who have been harmed as well as future generations a full and vigorous accounting of the events that led to what has now become the worst oil spill in U.S. history,” Obama said. He was flanked by commission co-chairmen former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Bill Reilly.
He asked for a report from the commission in six months.
Reilly served as EPA administrator during the first Bush administration, assisting in the federal response to the Exxon Valdez disaster. He also formerly chaired the World Wildlife Fund.
Graham served as governor of Florida for two years and served in the Senate for 18 years.
In his speech, Obama lamented the “widespread and unbelievably painful losses experienced by the people along the Gulf Coast.”
Obama characterized the spill response as the “the largest cleanup effort in the nation’s history” and said 20,000 individuals are working on the crisis. Obama said he authorized an additional 17,000 National Guard troops to respond. He directed administration officials to “triple manpower” where oil has already hit shore or will do so within 24 hours.
He also said the federal government will continue hounding BP.
“We will make sure they deliver,” he said of the oil giant. “We will absolutely continue to hold BP and any other responsible party accountable for financial losses borne by people in the region.”
He said he was open to new laws and oversight changes as well as possible charges against those responsible.
“For years there has been a far too cozy relationship between oil companies and the agencies that regulate them,” Obama said, detailing the division of the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which, previous to the spill, collected royalties from oil companies and dished out leases. The agency was “plagued by corruption for years,” Obama said.
Obama also said there is a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.
BP is preparing to launch its latest plan to stop the spill, a containment effort that will involve cutting the damaged riser and fitting a containment dome on top that will funnel oil and gas to a drillship on the surface. The effort will be attempted later this week.
BP Managing Director Robert Dudley said BP will know by the end of the week whether the attempt worked or not.
BP previously tried to put a containment dome over the leak, but the dome quickly clogged with hydrates, or ice crystals.
This time, Dudley said, “we will pump warmer seawater down around it to keep the temperature within the right range, a little bit of methanol, and that’s the way we want to prevent the problem that we had before.”
Cutting the riser may increase oil flow by as much as 20 percent until the containment dome is in place, and some oil may continue to escape around the dome.
“All of these operations, including the cutting of the riser, are complex, involve risks and uncertainties, and have to be carried out by Remotely Operated Vehicles at 5,000 feet under water,” BP said in a statement. “Systems such as the … containment cap have never before been deployed at these depths and conditions, and their efficiency and ability to contain the oil and gas cannot be assured.”
Last week’s “top kill” attempt to block the flow of oil by pumping heavy materials into the gushing wellhead failed on Saturday when the pressure of the oil proved to be too powerful against the injected materials.
The administration’s top environmental adviser, Carol Browner, said in a TV interview last week, “This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we’ve ever faced in this country. It’s certainly the biggest oil spill, and we’re responding with the biggest environmental response.”
Browner said they have conducted more than 80 burns, which she says have been “highly successful” in corralling and burning off the oil. The controlled burning is dependent on weather conditions, Browner said.
Responders have also deployed 3.7 million feet of boom to protect shorelines, and vessels have skimmed more than 321,000 barrels, or 13.5 million gallons, of oily liquid off the sea surface.
When asked during an interview on “Meet the Press” if the oil industry misled the government about its readiness to deal with such a crisis, Dudley said, “I don’t think so.”
“We’re angry, too. This is an unprecedented accident,” he said, citing the successful use of blowout preventers on 5,000 deepwater wells in the Gulf. “They have not failed before.”
When asked how much oil was leaking into the Gulf, Dudley said, “We honestly do not know.” Dudley said the current estimates of oil flow into the Gulf — 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day — are not based on any actual measurements. He said this week’s containment effort will reveal better data. “The one thing about this measure … it will and should measure the majority of the flow,” he said.
The most promising solution to stopping the leak is the drilling of two relief wells, one of which BP started drilling on May 2. BP said Tuesday that the first well had reached 12,000 feet below sea level. The company began work on a second relief well on May 16, which is now at more than 8,500 feet.
BP says spill response has cost them $990 million. BP says it has paid half of the claims received so far: 15,000 of 30,000 total. It says it has paid out $40 million in response to the claims.