BP officials Tuesday told congressional representatives that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could grow at a rate more than 10 times current estimates in a worst-case scenario — greatly enlarging the potential scope of the disaster.
Most of the handful of congressional Democrats and Republicans who met with representatives from BP, Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill walked away unimpressed.
A source who attended the meeting said that the companies' representatives had a "deer in headlights" look and that the tenor of the conversation was that the firms "are attempting to solve a problem which they have never had to solve before at this depth…at this scope of disaster. They essentially said as much."
"What we heard was worst-case scenario, with no good solutions," said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting.
Officials have estimated that the leak is gushing oil at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day. But if things go badly, representatives for the companies worried that that figure could turn into 60,000 barrels a day, or 2.5 million gallons. Just four days at that rate would exceed the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez off Alaska, the worst spill in U.S. history.
The gloomy acknowledgment came on a day when calm winds allowed more boats to attack the spill and slowed the progress of the plume, which extends in a ragged pattern from the coast of Louisiana to offshore Pensacola, Fla.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, commanding officer of the guard's District 8 in New Orleans, said the best guess was that the slick remained at least 20 miles off the coast. BP officials said they were forecasting that the oil would not make landfall for three more days. But Lyle Panepinto, a seaplane pilot in Louisiana, said he saw a band of oil about 10 feet wide and several miles long circling the north end of Chandeleur Island about 50 yards from the beach.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said that if the weather holds, "we are going to be in pretty good shape here.…It's a great thing that we have a few more days now to make sure we get all of the booms and barriers in place.…It's going up very, very rapidly."
Tests on new spill samples indicated that the oil is typical Louisiana sweet crude, a light oil that can be either burned or readily dispersed, aiding cleanup efforts.
But like a wild animal eluding capture, the spill was unpredictable, its path and harm to the environment dependent on unknowns, including whether the so-called Loop Current could drag it below the tip of Florida — a nightmare scenario for the Keys and Everglades.
The rest of the Gulf Coast remained tense, making preparations for landfall. "We are facing a hovering menace out there that keeps changing shape and size by the hour," said Dan Turner, a spokesman for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "But we don't really know what to expect. If it hits, will it be a sheen of microscopic globules, or will it be tar balls washing up on the beaches?"
Meanwhile, Pensacola attorney Mike Papantonio said his legal team had heard a number of allegations about circumstances surrounding the deadly April 20 oil rig explosion 50 miles off the coast, which left 11 people missing and presumed dead.
Papantonio filed a class-action negligence lawsuit Friday that named as defendants Transocean, BP and Halliburton, the company that worked to seal the well with cement, as well as one other company.
Papantonio said employees of the defendants have alleged that the rig was drilling deeper than the approximately 20,000 feet allowed by its federal permit and that BP failed to install a "deep-hole safety valve" that could have cut off the flow of oil after an accident.
Workers have said the concrete seal was not properly formed and allowed pressurized natural gas to shoot up into the rig, where it ignited into an inferno.
But Papantonio also said that these assertions had not been substantiated by his team. "How much of it is valid? We don't know at this point," he said. "But we'll find out."
BP spokesman Andrew Gowers has said that the rig did not drill beyond the 20,211 feet it was allowed to under its permit.
A Halliburton spokeswoman, Cathy Mann, referred to an earlier statement that said the company's cement slurry design was "consistent with that utilized in other similar applications."
Guy Cantwell, a Transocean spokesman, noted that an investigation of the explosion is ongoing. "We will await all the facts before drawing conclusions," he said. "We will not speculate."
BP crews were working on several fronts to try to stanch three leaks at the sea floor nearly a mile below the surface: installing a new valve on a ruptured pipe, and preparing to lower a box-like coffer dam
over a broken mechanism atop the gushing wellhead.