Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a directive Wednesday to split the troubled Minerals Management Service into three branches, as BP prepared to launch its latest effort to plug the month-old oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We are holding out hope that 'top kill' will work," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said of the plan scheduled to start as soon as Sunday. "Let's all keep our fingers crossed. Let's all say our prayers that 'top kill' will work."
At a briefing in Robert, La., officials said they were pleased with progress on the impending procedure, which involves shooting heavy liquids into the well's blowout preventer to shut down the flow of crude.
In the meantime, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said a stopgap measure that is sucking oil from a tangled riser pipe on the gulf floor and sending it up to a ship is now collecting 3,000 barrels of oil a day, better than earlier projections.
The Interior Department order expands on Salazar's announcement last week that he would break up the Minerals Management Service, which has been criticized for its lax oversight of drilling operations and the oil industry.
To reduce the potential for conflicts of interest, the agency will now have three arms: one to lease federal lands and the Outer Continental Shelf for oil, gas and renewable energy development; one to enforce environmental and safety regulations; and one to collect royalties owed to the government.
Congressional hearings on the Deepwater Horizon disaster continued Wednesday as BP and Transocean executives returned to Capitol Hill. At a far-ranging House committee hearing, Transocean drew scrutiny for registering the drilling rig under the flag of the Marshall Islands, a step that critics said subjected it to less rigorous safety rules than a U.S.-flagged ship.
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, assailed BP's "sorry record" on safety. "BP has harnessed impressive scientific and technological experience to drill at great depths in the sea, and you have to wonder why they hadn't harnessed similar science and technology to anticipate failure, to install redundancy to prevent failure, and practices to clean up after an oil spill," he said.
Gulf Coast lawmakers told of the hardships their districts face. "I have heard from fishermen who are even contemplating suicide," said Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.).
Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) said seafood processors had been told, "Don't send me any American-processed shrimp; we don't know if it's got oil on it."
"You guys have really messed things up," he told the BP and Transocean executives.
BP America President Lamar McKay responded that BP was "dedicated to making the safety culture at every single level as good as it can possibly be.…We've made a lot of progress. I will be the first to admit the journey is never finished, and we must get better."
The spill, rising from the ocean bottom 48 miles off the coast of Louisiana, has remained largely offshore. But Tuesday it began to wash into a patch of sensitive wetlands in southern Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish. Reddish-brown strips of oil could be seen for several miles hovering off the coast in the South Pass and Pass-a-Loutre waterways at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Cleanup began Wednesday on the sandy beach, and the intrusion into wetlands is estimated at less than an acre, said a Coast Guard spokesman.
Coast Guard officials continued to downplay the likelihood that significant amounts of oil would enter the Loop Current, which curls around the gulf and sweeps around the Florida Keys and up into the Atlantic.
But at a Wednesday briefing for the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Frank Muller-Karger, an oceanography professor at the University of South Florida, worried that the oil could get caught in eddies spinning off the Loop Current and swirl around in the gulf for months.
Little is known about what is happening beneath the surface, he warned. "I think there is an enormous amount of oil below the surface that we cannot see.…I think this is a problem we're going to have to live with for years, as opposed to months."
Landry, the Coast Guard admiral, said tests showed that tar balls found on Key West beaches had not come from the BP spill, adding that the potential effect on the Florida coast "is perceived as very light, and days away."
Raja Abdulrahim in New Orleans, Bettina Boxall in Los Angeles and Jim Tankersley in Washington contributed to this report.