While as much as 5,000 b/d of oil leaks into the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), the Obama administration on Thursday did not rule out suspending new deepwater drilling activity while the offshore oil industry garners heightened scrutiny by lawmakers.

"Everything's on the table...We are determined to get to the bottom of this," said Department of Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes at a White House press briefing. "That's why [Interior] Secretary [Ken] Salazar today is announcing the additional inspections and we're looking at additional short-term steps that we can take."

Asked if one of those short-term steps would be a pause in offshore drilling, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "We do not know. We're in the process of evaluating. This is a highly regulated area. We think the fundamental practice is safe. But obviously we're looking very hard at everything."

The spill was expected to reach the U.S. shore on Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) said Thursday. USCG Rear Admiral Sally Brice-O'Hara said at the briefing that no marine animals affected by the spill had been recovered yet, but "we are assuming the worst case."

It is also feared that the spill could close shipping channels, which could affect tanker deliveries of oil to the United States. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency on Thursday. Thursday afternoon Rear Admiral Mary Landry, who heads the Eighth Coast Guard District, told reporters lessons learned during hurricanes Katrina and Rita would be drawn upon to preserve traffic flow in the GOM and on the Mississippi River.

"It is our goal to not allow the disruption of traffic on the Mississippi River...We cannot disrupt maritime commerce," she said.

In a letter to President Obama on Thursday U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said he was filing legislation to prohibit Interior from acting on administration plans to expand offshore drilling, including seismic testing and other exploration.

"Such a pause should remain in effect pending the outcome of federal investigations into the cause of this incident and the identification of ways to prevent something similar from happening again," Nelson said in his letter to Obama.

He cited the fact that the United States does not require rigs to have remote control shut-off devices.

"It's unclear whether any additional well shut-off controls would have made a difference in this case," Nelson wrote. "But questions about the practices of the oil industry raised in the wake of this still-unfolding incident require that you postpone indefinitely plans for expanded offshore drilling operations."

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), said the country must react to the disaster in a "measured and right way" rather than in fear. "Retreat is not an option...We must continue to drill."

After the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, PA, the United States brought construction of nuclear plants to a "screeching halt," and now the United States is behind France in nuclear power. "We ran. We retreated out of fear," Landrieu said. However, Landrieu pointed out that the country continued with space exploration despite the Space Shuttle explosions.

"It is more risky to import our oil than to drill for it offshore," she said. "There may be those who need to be held accountable [for the spill]. The investigation will show that."

In the meantime, inspectors from the Minerals Management Service (MMS) will be visiting deepwater rigs to review records of blowout preventer testing and determine that if any problems have been found they were corrected, MMS' Michael Saucier, regional supervisor for field operations, told reporters Thursday. He said the task should be completed in seven days.

On Wednesday responders made their first attempt to burn a portion of the spill after more leaks had been discovered at the disabled well. BP plc along with USCG and MMS used a controlled burn on part of the spill as responders ratchet up attempts to contain it. The burn, for which the USCG had pre-approval, was successful, BP COO Doug Suttles said. However, it was on a small scale and consumed about 100 bbl of oil. Suttles said responders were prepared to burn 500-1,000 bbl at a time when the weather permits.

As much as 5,000 b/d of oil is thought to be leaking, five times as much as the volume originally estimated.

Thursday six remotely operated vehicles were circling the well site, continuing to try to activate the well's blowout preventer, which failed to function despite reports that it had been activated by the rigs crew before they abandoned the vessel, Suttles said.

The BP executive said ExxonMobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell plc, Chevron Corp. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. had all been solicited for advice on how to stop the flow of oil.

The U.S. Department of Defense has offered its assistance to contain the spill. Suttles said BP asked for better imaging technology to explore the well site as well as better remotely operated subsea vehicles.

"We'll take help from anyone," Suttles said. "We welcome the offer from the Department of Defense...We're not interested in where the idea comes from. We're interested in how do we stop this flow."

Efforts to fabricate an oil collection system also continue, with one of three chambers complete and work under way on the others as well as on the necessary pipe. A drillship has been secured for the collection effort, Suttles said.

While responders have been using oil dispersant on the sea surface, Wednesday the idea was suggested that dispersant be released at the site of the leaks, 5,000 feet below the surface. Suttles said Thursday that BP and others have been studying the technique and seeking advice within the industry. However, federal approval is necessary for any plan to release dispersant at the well site, Landry said, noting that if it's allowed it may be the first time in U.S. history.

The oil is emanating from a BP well on Mississippi Canyon Block 252 (MC252) where last week the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, owned and operated by Transocean Ltd., experienced an apparent well blowout, burned and sank (see Daily GPI, April 28a; April 28b; April 27).

Suttles said Thursday that efforts to stop the flow could take hold that day -- or it could take as long as 90 days if a relief well is required. "It's somewhere between today and 90 days," he said.

Efforts to contain the spill and secure the well are costing the MC252 owners about $6 million per day, BP said. This figure is expected to rise as activity increases. BP has a 65% interest in MC252.

U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) also sent a letter Thursday -- to the heads of the top five U.S.-based oil companies, telling them to prepare to appear before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which Markey chairs.

"From the health of our economy to the health of our environment, it's time for the American public to hear from the oil companies," Markey said. "Their opinions and answers on the issues of energy policy are vital given the push in Congress to construct a comprehensive energy independence strategy for our nation."

During an earnings conference call with financial analysts Thursday Apache Corp. CEO Steve Farris was asked about the spill and its implications for GOM drilling.

"Certainly, it's going to be an area that gets a lot of attention," he said. "I hope we can come up with something that's workable, safe and environmentally friendly."

Asked if Apache could shut in some of its offshore platforms because of the spill, Farris said it would "depend on the direction of the...spill itself. We are not in danger today of any of the spill reaching any of our production facilities. We'll have to wait and see."

BP launched a spill response plan following the April 22 sinking of Deepwater Horizon 130 miles southeast of New Orleans.

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