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Obama form spill commission as oil closes

US President Barack Obama announced today the establishment of an independent presidential commission to probe a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that has already shut down a popular tourist beach in Louisiana.

world Updated: May 22, 2010 19:18 IST

US President Barack Obama on Saturday announced the establishment of an independent presidential commission to probe a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that has already shut down a popular tourist beach in Louisiana.

As Grand Isle, Louisiana, closed its seven-mile beach to clean up an orange-liquidy slick washing ashore, the president moved to prevent similar disasters in the future.

The main task of the bipartisan body, formed by an executive order, is to provide recommendations on how the oil industry can prevent -- and mitigate the impact of -- any future spills that result from offshore drilling.

'Now, this catastrophe is unprecedented in its nature, and it presents a host of new challenges we are working to address,' Obama said in his weekly radio address as he announced the formation of the commission.

'But the question is what lessons we can learn from this disaster to make sure it never happens again.'

Two-term Florida governor and former senator Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency William Reilly, a Republican, will serve as co-chairmen of the seven-member body, Obama said.

'I can't think of two people who will bring greater experience or better judgment to the task at hand,' the president pointed out.

He said he will appoint the remaining five members of the panel in coming days. It will include scientists, engineers, and environmental advocates, but no sitting government employees or elected officials.

Even at the lowest estimates, more than six million gallons of crude have flowed into the water since the April 20 explosion that heavily damaged a Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by energy giant BP in the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 people.

Obama said his administration had deployed over 1,100 vessels, about 24,000 personnel and more than two million feet of protective boom to help contain the spill.

Just how much oil is gushing daily from the rig's wreckage has been a contentious issue, with BP initially putting the figure at 5,000 barrels -- or 210,000 gallons.

'That was not just BP's estimate. That was the estimate of the in-flight command, including NOAA and the Coast Guard. That's the best estimate we have,' BP's chief operating officer Doug Suttles told ABC television on Friday.

But in further confusing comments, BP also radically slashed by more than half its figures for how much of the oil it is siphoning up daily from the ruptured well via a mile-long (1,600 meter) insertion tube.

BP spokesman John Curry told AFP on Friday that it now estimated some 92,400 gallons of oil had been diverted from the well in the 24 hours before midnight on Thursday. That would mean BP is sucking up only 2,200 barrels daily from the pipe, not the 5,000 barrels it had estimated on Thursday.

Coast Guard commandant Thad Allen later told reporters that 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 showed more oil continuing to spew into the Gulf from the ruptured well - as visitors flocked to BP's site to watch the video.

Grand Isle shut down its beach as volunteers armed with spades sought to scoop up the oil into plastic bags.

'This is only the beginning. It happened 30 days ago and it just came yesterday. Yesterday, it was the very first, it was very little, and now it's all over,' said angry resident, 69-year-old Lana Downing.

Charter boat captain Larry Averitt said impatience was also growing further along the coast in Venice, Louisiana.

'In the beginning, everybody was trying to be patient. People are starting to get exasperated. It's definitely affecting our ability to make a livelihood and pay our bills,' he told AFP. 'Nothing BP has tried so far has worked.'

Suttles sought to quell the growing anger among the US administration, telling ABC television that BP had already spent 700 million dollars on the clean-up.

'We've mounted the largest response ever done in the world. We put 20,000 people at this,' he said.

But he also revised the timetable for when BP would attempt its latest bid to stop the leak, the 'top kill' operation.

'Our current forecast for when this operation will take place is sometime in the early part of next week. The best estimate is Tuesday,' Suttles told reporters. He added the operation was very complex and was being carried out by robotic submarines positioning the equipment on the seabed a mile down.

BP PLC, owner of the damaged well, predicts it will take 70 to 90 days - perhaps into August - to stab through more than three miles (five kilometers) of seawater and earth and puncture the vertical pipe that is channeling a torrent of oil and gas to the surface of the Gulf near the Louisiana coast.

First Published: May 22, 2010 19:14 IST