WASHINGTON — Declaring himself as angry as the rest of the nation, President Barack Obama assailed oil drillers and his own administration Friday as he ordered extra scrutiny of drilling permits to head off any repeat of the sickening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Engineers worked desperately to stop the leak that's belching out at least 210,000 gallons of crude a day.
As Louisiana wildlife officials reported huge tar balls littering shores and the first report came in of tar on a Florida beach, BP technicians labored to accomplish an engineering feat a mile below the water's surface. They were gingerly moving joysticks to guide deep-sea robots and thread a mile-long, 6-inch tube with a rubber stopper into the 21-inch pipe gushing oil from the ocean floor — a task one expert compared to stuffing a cork with a straw through it into a gushing soda bottle.
It's the latest scheme to stop the flow after all others have failed, more than three weeks since the oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and set off the disastrous leak.
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator, said at a news conference Friday that four tarballs had been found along a 4-mile stretch of beach in Florida's Escambia County. She said they would have to be tested to see whether they came from the gulf oil rig spill.
At the White House, Obama, whose comments until now have been measured, heatedly condemned a "ridiculous spectacle" of oil executives shifting blame in congressional hearings and denounced a "cozy relationship" between their companies and the federal government.
"I will not tolerate more finger-pointing or irresponsibility," Obama said the Rose Garden, flanked by members of his Cabinet.
"The system failed, and it failed badly. And for that, there is enough responsibility to go around. And all parties should be willing to accept it," the president said.
Obama's tone was a marked departure from the deliberate approach and mild chiding that had characterized his response since the huge rig went up in flames April 20 and later sank 5,000 feet to the ocean floor. Then came the leaking crude, the endangered wildlife, the livelihoods of fishermen at risk.
Obama also acknowledged the growing dispute about how much oil may be flowing from the damaged well, with scientists suggesting that the government's current estimate of 5,000 barrels — 210,000 gallons — a day may be far too low.
"What really matters is this: There's oil leaking and we need to stop it, and we need to stop it as soon as possible," he said.
Both Eugene Chiang, a professor of astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley, and Timothy Crone of Columbia University said the spill falls somewhere between 840,000 gallons and 4.2 millions gallons a day, but couldn't pinpoint much beyond that.
"It's the same feeling you get when someone asks you how many jelly beans are in a jar," Chiang said. "I'm confident enough in it to say it is well above 5,000 barrels a day."
Crone agreed the flow was almost certainly much higher than the government's estimate. "Whether it's twice, four times or 20 times I don't know," he said.
To make their estimates, the scientists essentially tracked particles or billows of oil across a screen of video of the spill, then used the size of the pipes, particles and speed of the video to come up with a rate.
In the gulf on Friday, BP technicians were preparing the first of several efforts to plug the leaking well and siphon off some of the oil. A so-called top hat containment chamber is already on the seabed, waiting to be maneuvered over the biggest leak in case the insertion pipe fails.
A relief well is being drilled to block the leaking well. Officials said it had reached 9,000 feet below the ocean surface, about halfway to the planned intersection point with the original well.
This week executives from three oil companies — BP, which was drilling the well, Transocean, which owned the rig, and Halliburton, which was doing cement work to cap the well — testified on Capitol Hill, each trying to blame the other for what may have caused the disaster.
Next week, administration officials face their own Capitol Hill grillings for the first time since the accident, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appearing before a Senate committee Monday and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifying on Tuesday.
Obama announced that the Interior Department would review whether the Minerals Management Service is following all environmental laws before issuing permits for offshore oil and gas development. BP's drilling operation at Deepwater Horizon received a "categorical exclusion," which allows for expedited oil and gas drilling without the detailed environmental review that normally is required.
"It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies," Obama said.
Echoing President Ronald Reagan's comment on nuclear arms agreements with Moscow, he said, "To borrow an old phrase, we will trust but we will verify."
The president has since put his plans for more drilling on hold, until officials find the cause of the Gulf of Mexico leak. But on Friday, he maintained that domestic oil drilling continues to be part of his overall energy strategy.
Obama called it "essential that going forward we put in place every necessary safeguard and protection so that a tragedy like this oil spill does not happen again. . . . I will not tolerate more finger-pointing or irresponsibility."
Information from the New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.