Obama visits Gulf for oil spill update

U.S. President Barack Obama is in Louisiana for an oil spill update, a day after BP placed a funnel-like cap on the deepwater well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

BP cap on gushing deepwater well collects some oil

An oil-spattered fishing trawler pulls oil-covered booms Friday through Barataria Bay, along the Gulf of Mexico coast in southeastern Louisiana. ((Gerald Herbert/Associated Press))
U.S. President Barack Obama has returned to the Louisiana coast to assess the latest efforts to contain the ever-growing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama landed at the New Orleans airport just after 2 p.m. ET and went into a small building for a briefing with U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing response operations, as well as state and local officials. The governors of Louisiana, Florida and Alabama were also at the briefing.

The president said it's "way too early to be optimistic" about BP's latest effort to cap the well, although he said it appeared progress is being made. Obama also chided BP for reports that the company will be spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign and billions of dollars in dividend payments to shareholders.

"I don't have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations, but I want BP to be very clear they've got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done," Obama said.

"What I don't want to hear is when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising that they're nickelling and diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time," he said.

Obama was visiting several Gulf coast communities where people's livelihoods have been upended by the spill.

He rode south from New Orleans to the small barrier island town of Grand Isle, La., and stepped into Camardelles Live Bait. The shop owner was there to meet him, along with a shrimper, an oysterman, a marina owner and others.

Birds at risk

Wildlife officials in Louisiana are finding a growing number of soiled birds, browned by a mix of mud and oil, the CBC's David Common says.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said he saw many soiled animals during a boat tour of Louisiana's marshland.

"We saw a couple of brown pelicans, the state bird of Louisiana," Brune said. "One was soaked in oil and was unable to lift out of the water. It couldn't fly away. Another one was so soaked in oil it wasn't even trying."

On Friday, waves of gooey tar blobs were washing ashore on the white sand of the Florida Panhandle and nearby Alabama beaches.

A bird is mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island, La. ((Charlie Riedel/Associated Press))

Obama's visit comes a day after BP placed a funnel-like cap on the deepwater well that has been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for more than a month.

"We did get the cap in place successfully last night," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said Friday morning in one of several television appearances.

The next task will be to close four vents in the top of the cap and force as much oil as possible through a riser pipe to a tanker waiting on the water's surface, 1,500 metres above.

The device started pumping oil and gas to a tanker on the surface overnight.

"Progress is being made, but we need to caution against over-optimism," said the coast guard's Allen, the government's point man for the disaster.

The cap, which resembles an inverted funnel with a rubber seal, is not expected to capture all of the oil, Suttles said, but "if we can get it optimized it should get the vast majority." As of Friday morning, the cap was collecting and diverting roughly 191,000 litres a day, he said, though he stressed he wasn't certain.

If the new cap fails — like every other attempt to control the six-week-old leak — the best chance is probably a relief well, which is not expected to be completed until August.

Obama cancels Asian trip

Obama had been scheduled to visit Australia and Indonesia but called off the trip suddenly.

White House officials announced the cancellation late Thursday night without explanation, saying only that Obama "looked forward to rescheduling so that he can visit both countries soon."

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton had said Wednesday the trip was "still on schedule."

Friday's visit marks Obama's third appearance in the region since the leak began after an offshore rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.

Oil washing up in Florida

In Pensacola, Fla., oil blobs were being hurled onto the beach by every crashing wave, leaving patches of "really wet, goopy, glistening" globs — some as big as dinner plates — strewn across the sand, according to the CBC's Paul Hunter.

This oil blob was among many that washed ashore Friday on Pensacola Beach, Fla. ((Paul Hunter/CBC))
Sheen, too, was washing up, leaving a "yellowy-green-beige hue to the sand," Hunter said.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist told CNN on Friday he had requested additional skimmers from the coast guard to help collect the oil.

To date, "most of our beaches are very clean and untouched," Crist said.

At stake is Florida's booming tourism industry, which brings $60 billion US to the state every year.

"It's incredibly important to try to do everything we can to protect our state," Crist said, adding the appearance of oil onshore has made him "angry and frustrated."

Obama has been criticized by some pundits for displaying too little emotion about the spill and for not making an emotional connection to those affected by it. Friday's trip could change that.

In an interview broadcast Thursday night, the typically unruffled president told CNN's Larry King he was angered by the failure of efforts to stop the flow of oil.

"I am furious at this entire situation because this is an example where somebody didn't think through the consequences of their actions," Obama said. "This is imperilling an entire way of life and an entire region for potentially years."

With files from The Associated Press and the CBC's Paul Hunter and David Common