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U.S. braces for possible oil spill

NEW ORLEANS, April 23 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday that containing oil from an exploded rig in the Gulf of Mexico is Washington's "No. 1 priority," amid reports that the exposed well on the seabed isn't leaking.

As the Gulf of Mexico region braced for an environmental disaster, data from an unmanned submarine brought good news. A remote-controlled U.S. Coast Guard sub Friday recorded images from the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which exploded Tuesday and sunk two days later, that indicate no oil is leaking from the well.

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Officials had feared that as much as 336,000 gallons of crude a day could be rising from the well on the sea floor, warning that the spill could become the worst in the country since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident.

That doesn't mean there is no need to worry.

Several-hundred-thousand gallons of crude and diesel fuel have already spilled into the ocean, forming a 5-square-mile carpet threatening to wash ashore in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

Moreover, while most of the 126 people on the rig at the time of the blast are back onshore, 11 workers are unaccounted for. Coast Guard continued with air- and sea-based rescue efforts, yet chances to find the missing men alive are very small, experts say.

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Obama offered all assistance needed in the rescue effort "as well as in mitigating and responding to the environmental impact," the White House said in a statement.

The operator of the rig, British Petroleum, dispatched an armada of ships and airplanes specialized in dealing with such a spill. They are able to recover oil floating on the ocean surface or deploy oil-dissolving chemicals.

"We are determined to do everything in our power to contain this oil spill and resolve the situation as rapidly, safely and effectively as possible," BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward said in a statement.

BP leased the rig from Transocean, a Houston company that is the world's largest offshore drilling contractor with more than 140 offshore rigs in place.

Experts say the spill will unleash a wave of litigation and congressional hearings, affecting Washington's plans to improve energy security by drilling for natural resources at home.

"This week's disaster could throw a monkey wrench into Obama administration's recently announced plan to have the Minerals Management Service open up new areas for off-shore drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf," New Orleans attorney Keith Hall of Stone Pigman, which represents several major oil and gas companies, said in a statement. "An accident of this magnitude, involving some of the biggest players in the business, will unfortunately provide ammunition for those opposing any form of expanded energy exploration in the Gulf and other areas."

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Others say statistics show that drilling won't be affected by the incident.

More than 500 fires broke out on platforms in the gulf since 2006, the Minerals Management Service says. While those fires killed at least two people, injuring a dozen more, they didn't slow down drilling in the Gulf.

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