BP promises to honor 'all legitimate claims'; Nelson warns of 'gargantuan' disaster

A federal cap of $75 million is in place on economic damages from oil spills, as well as a $500 million cap on environmental damage. There is also a federal trust fund with a cap of $10 billion per incident.

Nelson, speaking to reporters after Hayward's remarks, said he asked Hayward the same question about BP’s level of commitment at the start of their half-hour meeting.

“I said, ‘Will you be responsible for the economic damages?’ and he said, ‘That is something that we will have to work out in the future,’” Nelson said.

Nelson said he and other senators received a private briefing Tuesday from top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and were told that a Wednesday landfall is likely for the outer edges of the oil spill somewhere along the Gulf Coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama.

He then painted a potentially disastrous scenario, based on the circular winds in the Gulf that could take the oil onto Florida’s Panhandle beaches — as summer season is starting — and even possibly around the state and into the Atlantic.

“According to the NOAA briefing that we just had, the winds are going from the southeast in a northwesterly direction, and they expect…the oil to reach land tomorrow, with these prevailing winds,” Nelson said. “Then the question is in the next few days, where does it go?”

If the oil gets carried into the Gulf’s so-called “loop current,” Nelson said it would travel down Florida’s eastern coast, into the Florida Keys, and then into the Gulf Stream.

“It hugs the Florida Keys, hugs the southeast coast of Florida all the way up to Fort Pierce, and then leaves the coast and goes across the Atlantic to Scotland,” Nelson said. “That’s how the old Spanish galleons would go home. They’d get the Gulf Stream.…This potential environmental disaster could be just of gargantuan proportions.”

Nelson told reporters he had spoken repeatedly - including again on Tuesday - to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) about preventing offshore oil drilling in the climate change bill. Kerry, who is leading negotiations, has been non-committal, but Nelson said, “He’s working it.”

If drilling is included, Nelson explicitly threatened to repeat his effort five years ago to block then-Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) from allowing drilling in the eastern Gulf.

“I don’t want to have to, but if I have to, I will,” Nelson said of a filibuster.

Nelson said he has begun gently mocking some pro-oil drilling Senate colleagues about their stances.

"I've gone up to a few senators who've been for drilling and I have sarcastically said to them in a whisper, 'Drill, baby, drill,' " Nelson said. "And they roll their eyes as if in mock horror at the possibilities of what could happen as a result of this disaster."

Hayward, flanked by BP-America Chairman-President Lamar McKay and BP Executive Vice President David Nagel, said a massive dome to contain and stop the spill will be installed on Thursday and hooked up over the weekend. But he did not guarantee full success.

“This has never deployed in this water depth,” he said. “It is a technique that the industry uses often in shallow water of 300, 400 feet. It has never been deployed [at] 5,000 feet, so we should not expect it will go perfectly.”

Asked if BP could go bankrupt as a result of the spill if the cleanup lasts for months, Hayward said the company can survive the costs.

“I believe BP has the resources to deal with this, and we intend to deal with it,” Hayward said.