Scenarios: Limits to government on plugging Gulf oil leak

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A month-old gusher of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the U.S. coast has resisted efforts by BP Plc to plug it up, and the Obama administration is under increasing pressure to do something about it.

A dead Northern Gannet covered in oil lies along Grand Isle Beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana May 21, 2010. A month after the well blowout and rig explosion that unleashed the catastrophic spill, sheets of rust-colored heavy oil are starting to clog fragile marshlands on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta, damaging fishing grounds and wildlife. Scientists fear parts of the huge fragmented surface slick will be sucked to the Florida Keys and Cuba by ocean currents. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

President Barack Obama has sought to respond actively to the disaster and limit the environmental and economic impact in the Gulf.

Here are some potential scenarios for what might happen next.


The federal government, not in the oil well business, is limited by what direct impact it can have on stopping the leak. The U.S. military does not have skills in the oil sector and officials have stressed the Pentagon is already providing whatever support it can to assist the U.S. response to the disaster.

The Obama administration has piled heavy pressure on BP to speed up its efforts to plug it up. “We are continuing to push BP to do everything that it can,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.


In terms of potential legal action, the Obama administration’s Justice Department eventually could charge BP with violating U.S. environmental laws. So far, the Justice Department has not launched an investigation. Officials there say they are monitoring the situation to ensure BP pays for the cleanup as promised.

Reparations for the last major oil spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, were tied up in court for years as the company appealed an Anchorage, Alaska jury’s award of $5 billion in punitive damages and it was reduced to $2.5 billion. The U.S. Congress has talked of raising a liability cap of $75 million to $10 billion for such disasters.


The federal government will pile heavy pressure on BP to foot the complete bill, with Americans in no mood to use taxpayer dollars for the disaster after the billions of dollars spent to bail out banks and auto companies.

ProPublica is reporting that that the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to bar BP from receiving U.S. government contracts, a move it said would cost the company billions of dollars in revenues and could end its drilling in federally controlled oil fields.

Obama is creating a commission to investigate the cause of the spill, evaluate industry practices and study government oversight. One likely scenario is that Obama will put off his plans to expand offshore oil drilling, making it unlikely that Republicans would join in energy legislation.

The president, whose Democrats face congressional elections in November, is getting modest marks from the public on his handling of the spill.

A Pew Research Center poll on May 11 found 38 percent of Americans approved of his handling of the oil leak and 36 percent disapproved. Opinion about Obama’s performance is not as negative as opinion about former President George W. Bush’s response to the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.


The worst-case scenario is that it takes BP two more months to complete drilling a relief well that the company has said would provide the ultimate solution to halt the oil flow. A better solution: BP is working on attempting a “top kill” -- pumping heavy fluids, and then cement, into the well to stop the flow in the next few days.

“I think the best-case scenario is actually either late Sunday or early Monday as this top kill procedure works and the flow stops. ... I think worst case is it takes us until the relief well gets down which is probably early August,” BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said on CBS’s “The Early Show.”

Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham