There's good news and bad news for President Obama on Friday as he gets his third boots-on-the-ground update in Louisiana on efforts to deal with the BP oil spill and its environmental and economic effects.
While the president will encounter cautious optimism regarding BP's latest attempt to contain the crude oil jetting from a ruptured pipe some 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, he'll also be greeted with a public mood as sullen as the storm clouds that are covering southern Louisiana Friday.
"There's a feeling down here that this is not a top priority for him, that he's reacting to events rather than trying to control events," says Kirby Goidel, a political scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
Whether or not the perception is accurate, the blowout from the Deepwater Horizon accident, now into its sixth week, has gone on so long "it almost doesn't matter what he does if the oil doesn't stop flowing," he says.
That's one reason all eyes are now focused on a containment cap BP placed on the ruptured pipe during the past 24 hours. It's the latest attempt to contain the oil leaking into the Gulf.
US Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is heading the day-to-day federal response to the blowout, Friday morning called the seating of the containment cap "a positive development," but he cautioned that "it will be some time before we can confirm that this method will work and to what extent it will mitigate the release of oil into the environment."
The new cap that undersea robots placed on the leaking pipe appears to be capturing some of the oil, which is rising through a pipe to a ship waiting on the surface.
BP officials say they are encouraged by the results so far.
"But we have only 12 hours' experience with this; we have never done this at 5,000 feet [below sea level] before," cautions Kent Wells, the company's senior vice president for exploration and production. Over the next few days, the BP team will slowly increase the amount of gas and oil flowing up the pipe to a ship receiving the oil. The go-slow approach is designed to avoid a sudden buildup of pressure that might blow the containment cap off the end of the pipe and to keep seawater out of the system.
But it's not expected to capture all of the oil. BP will use dispersants on oil that leaks from the cap – leaking anticipated because the company encountered problems trying to make a clean cut to the top of the pipe spewing the oil.
Hopes of actually stopping the flow now rest with two relief wells BP is drilling. The aim is to use them as conduits for cement, which BP will pump into the leaking well to seal it. The company has said it will take another two months to finish drilling the wells.
Yet the administration has its own bit of encouraging news to share. This week, the US Army Corps of Engineers issued permits to Louisiana to build six long sand berms that state officials want to build just off several vulnerable barrier islands and marsh inlets to keep more oil from these fragile, economically vital habitats. Ahead of the president's visit to the region last week, St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis said he hoped the administration would sign off on the permits.
This time around, Mr. Obama could offer something to help people cope with the disaster – accelerating a program set to start in 2017 in which the federal government will share the revenue from offshore oil leases with Louisiana, says Wendell Curole, who heads the Southern LaFourche Levee District in Lafourche Parish and traces his family's presence in the region back seven generations.
The US government pulls in some $7 billion a year in royalties, he says. Starting up that program as soon as possible, instead of waiting until 2017, would help offset some of the economic losses people here already are feeling as a result of the blowout.
Even a clear statement of the region's value to the rest of the nation would help, Mr. Curole adds. Like many here, he says that if this incident had happened just off Florida, in the Chesapeake Bay, or in California's Sacramento River Delta, the federal response would have been more aggressive.
The comment reflects what LSU's Dr. Goidel says is a broader yearning among residents here to correct what they see as an underappreciation around the rest of the country for what the delta region contributes. Some 30 percent of the fish caught in US waters are caught off the delta, because of its unique ecology, Curole says.
If Obama "would just say: The delta is a very unique place; there's no delta in North America that can match the Mississippi Delta with its tremendous risks and tremendous rewards,' that would help reassure people that he has the region highlighted on his map," he says.