* Oil getting closer to “Loop Current”
* Authorities preparing for impact on southern Florida
* Offshore drilling chief to step down (Adds details, quotes)
By Tom Doggett and Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON, May 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard is preparing for the possibility that tar balls from the massive Gulf Coast oil spill might be swept up in a current and reach the southern Florida coast, a top official said on Monday.
Rear Admiral Peter Neffenger, deputy national incident commander with the Coast Guard, said in testimony before a Senate committee that the government was closely watching whether the oil would be swept up into the “loop current” that moves around Florida.
“Currently it shows to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 miles (65-80 km) from the southern edge of the spill,” Neffenger said of the current that could sweep the oil down to the Florida Keys and even up the U.S. East Coast.
“We are watching that carefully and as a result of that we are preparing for potential impact on the southern Florida coast and impacts around the southern Florida coast,” he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at a hearing on the oil spill.
He said the oil would likely be in the form of tar balls that are a “little easier to manage” when they come ashore.
“This is not to say this is a good thing,” he said. “I think it will be a more manageable piece than what we’re currently looking at in the Gulf.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also said the government was monitoring the loop current very closely and were treating it as if it were a coastline.
“In other words ... if we were to see that the oil really was beginning to move toward the loop current we would begin doing some things in the way of dispersant and booming .. as if the loop current itself were a piece of the coast,” she said.
The two U.S. officials were testifying in the latest Congressional hearing on the April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 and left a ruptured well owned by BP Plc (BP.L) spewing oil into the Gulf.
At the hearing, committee chair Senator Joseph Lieberman, said the government should not allow any new deep water wells to get permits or be drilled until the industry could prove it can prevent another failure of drilling equipment in deep waters or contain oil spills more effectively.
“I say that with regret because I know how important offshore American oil is to our nation’s energy independence,” Lieberman said. “But the U.S. government has a responsibility to the public safety that is more important, and that responsibility, I fear was not fulfilled in this case.”
The U.S. Interior Department has placed a moratorium on any new offshore drilling permits until at least May 28 when a safety review is due to be completed. Any significant extension of this moratorium could have a major impact on offshore drilling companies and lower projected Gulf oil production. [ID:nN14152222]
Chris Oynes, the top Minerals Management Service official who oversees U.S. offshore drilling, will step down on May 31, The Washington Post, reported on Monday.
Top officials at MMS officials have come under fire for being too close to the industry and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced plans to reform the department.
A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, however, said she could not comment on the resignation.
Writing by Deborah Charles, Editing by Sandra Maler