May 24, 2010 / 8:01 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. government keeps "boot on neck" of BP over spill

GALLIANO, La. (Reuters) - The U.S. government piled pressure on BP Plc on Monday to clean up a “massive environmental mess” in the Gulf of Mexico amid growing anger at the oil giant’s failure to contain a five-week-old oil spill.

A boom is put in place to protect the shores of Bretan Island, Louisiana, which is a nesting ground for endangered birds, from oil May 20, 2010. REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard/Stephen Lehmann/Handout

The company insisted it was doing all it could to try to seal a blown-out oil well spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons (litres) of oil into the Gulf every day, a disaster that threatens to become the worst U.S. oil spill in history.

London-based BP said it would make another attempt to plug the leak on Wednesday, but gave it only a 60-70 percent chance of success. The company has now lost about 25 percent of its market value — almost $50 billion — since the spill began.

With heavy oil already washing into fragile marshlands and wildlife refuges in Louisiana and threatening the livelihoods of Gulf coast residents, the U.S. government is pushing BP to try to contain or seal the leak as soon as possible.

President Barack Obama has called it an unprecedented environmental catastrophe for the United States.

“We will keep our boot on their neck until the job gets done,” U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters after touring affected areas of the Gulf coast with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and a group of U.S. senators.

“This is a BP mess, it is a horrible mess and it is a massive environmental mess,” Salazar said, adding that BP was legally responsible for halting the spreading spill, cleaning up its effects and paying for resulting economic damages.

Salazar said an ongoing investigation by U.S. authorities would hold the company accountable “both civilly and in whatever way is necessary,” appearing to leave open the possibility of a criminal inquiry.

The interior secretary warned BP on Sunday it would be removed from efforts to seal the well if it was not seen as doing enough, although officials acknowledged only the company and the oil industry has the know-how to stop the spill.

“I don’t know of anything else we could do, but if the government felt there were other things to do it is clearly within their power to do that,” BP Chief Operations Officer Doug Suttles told reporters on Monday.

The Obama administration’s response chief for the disaster, Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, also appeared to take issue with Salazar’s hard line, saying BP was exhausting every “technical means possible” to deal with the leak.

“To push BP out of the way would raise the question of ‘replace them with what?’” Allen told a White House news conference.

The oil spill is a political hot potato for the Obama administration ahead of a November election that is widely expected to erode Democrats’ control of the U.S. Congress. Analysts warn that voters may punish Democrats regardless of who is ultimately deemed responsible for the mess.

The latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 51 percent of Americans were unhappy with Obama’s handling of the spill. The poll was based on telephone interviews with just over 1,000 people between May 21-23.

The disaster also has raised questions about Obama’s earlier proposal to expand offshore drilling as part of a strategy to win Republican support for climate change legislation.

A report on the BP Gulf oil disaster that will influence whether the Interior Department resumes issuing offshore drilling permits will be sent to Obama on Thursday, the White House said on Monday.

The White House has repeatedly said it is the energy giant’s responsibility to clean up the spill, but with public anger over BP’s handling of the crisis intensifying, there have been calls for the Obama administration to take charge.

Additional reporting by Sarah Young in London, Susan Heavey in Washington; Pascal Fletcher in Miami, Tom Bergin and Chris Baltimore in Houston; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Ross Colvin; Editing by Paul Simao

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