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Obama Says Oil Leak Disaster 'Potentially Unprecedented'

President Barack Obama after touring the Venice Coast Guard Center
President Barack Obama has described an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster" for the United States.

Speaking on a visit on May 2 to the southern state of Louisiana, which is expected to be heavily affected by the spill, Obama ensured his government would do whatever it takes to clean up the oil leaking from a ruptured underground oil line.

In drizzling rain and gusty winds in front of Venice harbor, the hub of the relief effort, Obama also said that British energy giant BP, the operator of the oil line, was "responsible" for the spill and must therefore pay for the cleanup.

"BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill. But as president of the United States, I'm going to spare no effort to respond to this crisis for as long as it continues," Obama said.

The BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22, two days after a huge explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed a now estimated 5,000 barrels a day of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Rough seas and high winds have hampered efforts to contain the spill, which has spread across a huge area of the Gulf.

Blustery winds and high seas kept planes grounded and forced vessels to abandon missions to mop up the 200-kilometer by 113-kilometer slick for a third day.

Obama said the oil that is still leaking from the well could "seriously damage" the economy and environment of the U.S. states on the Gulf coast, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who live in the region.

The president said the slick was 14 kilometers off the coast of southeastern Louisiana.

BP, which has said it would honor legitimate claims for damages, said it would be at least a week before temporary measures to stem the leak are in place.

The company’s chairman, Lamar McKay, said they hoped to lower a hastily made dome a mile below the surface to cap the wellhead in the next six to eight days, as a short-term option.

'Grave Scenario'

But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned it could take up to three months to drill relief wells that could fully contain the spillage.

"The scenario is a very grave scenario. You're looking at potentially 90 days before you get to what is the ultimate solution here, and that's a relief well that's going to have to be drilled down 3 and 1/2 miles below the ocean floor. And by the time you drill that well down, a lot of oil could spread," Salazar said.

There have been warnings that within weeks the spill, if unchecked, could eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster as the worst in U.S. history.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has declared a state of emergency, warned that the spill threatens the "way of life" in his state, which is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Louisiana wetlands host a multi-billion-dollar fishing industry and are a prime spawning area for fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters.

Environmentalists say it could take decades for the fragile marshes to recover if waves wash the oil ashore.

Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have also declared a state of emergency.

The region’s fishing industry was dealt its first major blow on May 2, when some 18,000 square kilometers of fishing areas, from the mouth of the Mississippi to Florida's Pensacola Bay, were closed for at least 10 days due to health concerns.

The leaking well is not only an ecological disaster but a potential political hazard as well, depending on how the public judges the Obama administration's response.

In 2005, President George W. Bush's administration was widely seen to have stumbled in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, dealing Bush's leadership a severe blow.

But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said any comparison with Katrina was "a total mischaracterization" and that the government had taken an "all hands on deck" approach from the beginning.

The disaster could also derail a climate change bill heading to the Senate because it has a provision for offshore drilling.

compiled from agency reports