VENICE, La. (Reuters) - Winds pushed a huge oil slick towards the U.S. Gulf shoreline on Sunday as President Barack Obama prepared to visit the area to show his administration was addressing what could become a major environmental disaster.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts showed the spreading spill, gushing unchecked from a blown-out undersea oil well, moving inexorably towards the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts, driven by winds from the south,
The projection indicated the possibility of some oil beaching on part of the Chandeleur Islands on the fringe of the Mississippi Delta. The outlying islands are the site of the Breton National Wildlife refuge, home to major bird colonies.
Although the Coast Guard has laid hundreds of thousands of feet (meters) of protective booms to try to halt the encroaching oil, high winds and rough seas were badly hampering the deployment of the plastic barriers and efforts by boats and planes to spray chemical dispersant on the oil.
"On top of that, we're going to have some pretty strong storms. These are just the worst conditions. When you have seas like that, you can hardly get the boats out, and the winds affect the aircraft," Ken Graham, head of the National Weather Service office in New Orleans, said.
Obama is expected in Louisiana on Sunday morning. He is concerned to show his government is adequately responding to what threatens to be an economic and ecological catastrophe, one that could ultimately rival the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which was the worst U.S. oil spill ever.
Obama's administration has demanded that London-based BP Plc, the owner of the blown-out well, do more to plug the flow of oil and contain the spreading slick.
British newspaper the Mail on Sunday said the spill could cost BP over 3 billion pounds ($4.6 billion) in containment and clean-up expenses. It said BP's insurance company Jupiter had laid off some catastrophe risk to larger reinsurers such as Lloyd's of London, Swiss Re or Munich Re.
The president, no doubt mindful of public criticism of President George W. Bush's handling of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, has ordered senior administration officials to take charge of the efforts to fight the slick.
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FISHING ALREADY CURTAILED
U.S. officials conceded on Saturday it was inevitable that oil from the uncontrolled leak in the Gulf of Mexico would hit the U.S. coast -- most likely Louisiana first.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries announced the closure of both recreational and commercial fishing in areas of likely impact, according to the NOAA web site. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals closed oyster harvesting areas in the coastal parishes of Plaquemines and St. Bernard.
Local officials said strong southern winds blowing onto the Louisiana coast would make it useless to try to lay fresh booms to protect against the encroaching slick.
"This definitely could be a lost day with the way the weather is. I'm sure they are going to try chemical dispersants, but I don't know how well they will work in this weather," Peter Hahn, coastal zone director of Plaquemines parish, said.
Coastline across four state from Louisiana to Florida is threatened by the slick, estimated to be some 130 miles (208 km) by 70 miles (112 km) in size and still growing. Many of the communities in the path of the oil slick are the same ones devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"There's enough oil out there that it is logical to think it will hit the shoreline. It's just a question of where and when," U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said on Saturday. "Mother Nature gets a vote in this thing."
The oil is still flowing unchecked from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and blown-out well about 42 miles (68 km) off the Louisiana coast.
Besides laying booms, one of the biggest oil containment operations ever has been trying to attack the spill, by spraying dispersants on the oil from boats and planes, and using an undersea robotic vehicle beneath the ocean surface.
On Saturday, the leading edge of the slick -- described as a thin surface "sheen" of oil -- was closing towards Venice, a tiny fishing community about 75 miles (121 km) southeast of New Orleans. The Mississippi and Alabama coasts could be at risk within three to four days, officials said.
Major shipping channels, key fishing areas, national wildlife refuges and popular beaches are in the path of the oily soup. So far, vital shipping lanes leading to the Mississippi River and huge Gulf Coast ports have not been affected, officials said.
The Gulf Coast and its marshlands are home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including manatees, sea turtles, dolphins, porpoises, whales, otters, pelicans and other birds.
ENERGY OUTPUT MOSTLY UNAFFECTED
The Gulf is also one of the world's most fertile seafood grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters, mussels, crabs and fish. It supports a $1.8 billion industry second only to Alaska.
In the first sign the spill has affected U.S. offshore energy production, the Minerals Management Service said on Saturday two U.S. offshore Gulf of Mexico production platforms had been shut down and a third was evacuated as a safety precaution. Further shutdowns were possible, it added, but the output affected so far was very small.
Still, the Gulf's major oil and gas facilities were largely south and west of the spill and unaffected by it on Saturday, according to spokesmen for the companies, which include BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron Corp.
The leak, which followed a rig explosion and sinking late last month, has forced Obama to suspend politically sensitive plans to expand offshore oil drilling, unveiled last month partly to woo Republican support for climate legislation.
Crude oil is pouring out at a rate of up to 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons or 795,000 litres) a day, according to government estimates.
With no easy solution in sight to plug a well almost 1 mile (1.6 km) under the sea, several hundred boats and planes have been working to contain the slick on the surface.
The Obama administration has said no new offshore drilling areas would be allowed until after a review of the spill.
(Additional reporting by Chris Baltimore, Anna Driver and Kristen Hays in Houston, Tom Bergin in London, Carlos Barria in Venice, Louisiana, Phil Stewart in Washington, Joshua Schnyer and Rebekah Kebede in New York; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Paul Simao)
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