VENICE, La. — A sense of doom settled over the American coastline from Louisiana to Florida on Saturday as a massive oil slick spewing from a ruptured well kept growing, and experts warned that an uncontrolled gusher could create a nightmare scenario if the Gulf Stream carries it toward the Atlantic.
President Barack Obama planned to visit the region today to assess the situation amid growing criticism that the government and oil company BP PLC should have done more to stave off the disaster. Meanwhile, efforts to stem the flow and remove oil from the surface by skimming it, burning it or spiking it with chemicals to disperse it continued with little success.
An explosion and fire ripped through the deep water drilling platform Deepwater Horizon on April 20, leaving 11 men missing and presumed dead. Two days later, the platform sank and oil was discovered leaking from the well head and the pipe that carries oil to the surface.
The Coast Guard conceded Saturday that it's nearly impossible to know how much oil has gushed out after saying earlier it was at least 1.6 million gallons — equivalent to about 2 1/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Even at that rate, the spill should eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident as the worst U.S. oil disaster in history in a matter of weeks. But a growing number of experts warned that the situation may already be much worse.
The nonprofit group SkyTruth of West Virginia on Saturday estimated that the slick contained more than 11.1 million gallons of oil, which would make it the largest oil spill in American history.
Slick triples in size
The oil slick over the water's surface appeared to triple in size over the past two days, which could indicate an increase in the rate that oil is spewing from the well, according to one analysis of images collected from satellites and reviewed by the University of Miami. While it's hard to judge the volume of oil by satellite because of depth, it does show an indication of change in growth, experts said.
"The spill and the spreading is getting so much faster and expanding much quicker than they estimated," said Hans Graber, executive director of the university's Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. "Clearly, in the last couple of days, there was a big change in the size."
Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production, said it was impossible to know just how much oil was gushing from the well, but said the company and federal officials were preparing for the worst-case scenario.
In an exploration plan and environmental impact analysis filed with the federal government in February 2009, BP said it had the capability to handle a "worst-case scenario" at the Deepwater Horizon site, which the document described as a leak of 162,000 barrels per day from an uncontrolled blowout — 6.8 million gallons each day.
Not if, but when
Oil industry experts and officials are reluctant to describe what, exactly, a worst-case scenario would look like — but if the oil gets into the Gulf Stream and is carried to the beaches of Florida, it stands to be an environmental and economic disaster of epic proportions.
The Deepwater Horizon well is at the end of one branch of the Gulf Stream, the famed warm-water current that flows from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic. Several experts said that if the oil enters the stream, it would flow around the southern tip of Florida and up the eastern seaboard.
"It will be on the East Coast of Florida in almost no time," Graber said. "I don't think we can prevent that. It's more of a question of when rather than if."
At the joint command center run by the government and BP near New Orleans, a Coast Guard spokesman maintained Saturday that the leakage remained around 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, per day.
But Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, appointed Saturday by Obama to lead the government's oil spill response, said no one could pinpoint how much oil is leaking from the ruptured well because it is about a mile underwater.
Allen said it was all but inevitable the spill will reach shore.
"There is enough oil out there it is logical to assume it will reach shore," Allen said. "The question is when or where."
The weather, which remained stormy Saturday, will be a major factor in where the oil spill heads.
"Mother Nature has a vote," Allen said.
Allen said a test of new technology used to reduce the amount of oil rising to the surface seemed to be successful.
During the test Friday, an underwater robot shot a chemical meant to break down the oil at the site of the leak rather than spraying it on the surface from boats or planes, where the compound can miss the oil slick.
As a safety measure, production work on two oil platforms in the spill area was halted Saturday and another rig was evacuated as a precaution.
From land, the scope of the crisis was difficult to see. As of Saturday afternoon, only a light sheen of oil had washed ashore in some places.
The real threat lurked offshore in a swelling, churning slick of dense, rust-colored oil the size of Puerto Rico. From the endless salt marshes of Louisiana to the white-sand beaches of Florida, there is uncertainty and frustration over how the crisis got to this point and what will unfold in the coming days, weeks and months.
As bad as the oil spill looks on the surface, it may be only half the problem, said University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea, who serves on a National Academy of Engineering panel on oil pipeline safety.
"There's an equal amount that could be subsurface too," said Bea. And that oil below the surface "is … near impossible to track."
BP has not said how much oil is beneath the gulf seabed Deepwater Horizon was tapping, but a company official speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the volume of reserves, confirmed reports that it was tens of millions of barrels — a frightening prospect to many.
Obama has halted any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent another disaster.
Meanwhile, lawyers from around the nation are mobilizing for a gargantuan legal battle over the spill, filing multiple lawsuits in recent days that together could dwarf the half-billion dollars awarded in the Exxon Valdez disaster two decades ago.
If the slick fouls beaches, ruins fisheries and disrupts traffic on the Mississippi River, attorneys say there could be hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs from Texas to Florida seeking monetary damages from BP and other companies that ran the rig. At least 26 federal suits have been filed.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.
Latest on the spill
> Oil continued to spew unabated, and, apparently, at an accelerating rate after the slick triples in size over two days.
> The oil will reach Florida's Atlantic coast "in almost no time," an expert says, once it enters the Gulf Stream.
> Stormy weather continued to hamper efforts to keep the oil slick from shore.
> President Barack Obama will visit the region today. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist flew to Pensacola on Saturday for a briefing.
Whether it's from boaters or bird watchers, shrimpers or surfers, Florida's economy is based on its beaches. Take a look at how the spreading oil slick in the gulf could effect the state's coastal areas. Business, 1D