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Posted at 03:17 PM ET, 04/06/2011

Obama’s favorite superhero, Steve Chu

My general policy regarding political speech is to be tolerant of the occasional verbal mistake or misapprehension or imprecision or unsuccessful quip. Give these folks a break: They’re always miked up and of course they’re going to say something now and again that, particularly when taken out of context, will make them look like doofuses.

But I fear I must annotate something President Obama said last week about Steve Chu and the Deepwater Horizon disaster. [As you may have heard on the street, this is a subject of some interest to me.]

Here’s Obama giving his big energy speech last week, per the White House transcript:

“That’s why I’ve asked Secretary Chu, my Energy Secretary, to work with other agencies, the natural gas industry, states, and environmental experts to improve the safety of this process. And Chu is the right guy to do this. He’s got a Nobel Prize in physics. He actually deserved his Nobel Prize. (Laughter and applause.) And this is the kind of thing that he likes to do for fun on the weekend. (Laughter.) He goes into his garage and he tinkers around and figures out how to extract natural gas. (Laughter.)

“I’m going to embarrass him further. (Laughter.) Last year, when we were trying to fill -- figure out how to close the cap, I sent Chu down to sit in the BP offices, and he essentially designed the cap that ultimately worked, and he drew up the specs for it and had BP build it, construct it. So this is somebody who knows what he’s doing. (Applause.) So for those of you who are studying physics, it may actually pay off someday. (Laughter.)”

True, in parts! Yes, Chu is the Energy Secretary. Yes, Chu won a Nobel Prize. Yes, Chu is a very smart guy and Obama sent him to the BP offices last year to help with that runaway oil well. There are, indeed, many true statements here.

But Chu no more capped the well than he invented the wheel.

If the president wants to credit Chu with designing the cap for the BP well, he might as well go all the way and say that Chu designed the space shuttle, the personal computer and the Pringle’s potato chip.

Steve Chu, let me repeat, did go to Houston, and he played a key role in the government response to the oil spill crisis. He worked very hard. What he did not do is design the cap. He did not order BP to construct it. Chu did insist that BP add diagnostic equipment which proved critical in determining the flow rate of the well. But to my knowledge (someone correct me if this is wrong), the cap — the 3-ram capping stack, as it was called — was already built at the time of the blowout, by a company named Cameron, which had also built the blowout preventer that failed.

The big steps in killing the well did not involve hardware, but decision-making. The hardest part was developing an understanding of the well and the confidence that capping it and shutting it in would solve the problem rather than make it worse through a second, underground blowout. Guess who worried that this new cap would backfire? Steve Chu. He feared (along with some other scientists) that the shutting-in of the well with this new cap could make the spill worse, and he called time-out. That delayed for a full day the sealing of the well with the new cap. If Chu had, in fact, designed the cap, one would guess he woudl not have been so fearful of its deployment.

Chu’s time-out was a defensible decision, given the stakes and and BP’s iffy track record. The administration, I think, was justified in doing a little more due diligence at that critical juncture. Chu and his team needed to make sure that BP wasn’t doing something reckless out of a desire to clamp the oil flow and lower the eventual Clean Water Act fines for all the oil spilled into the gulf.

Maybe Obama was just joshin’ throughout this whole riff (which was off script — see the remarks as prepared). But my guess is that Obama likes the idea of having a genius on his team. As someone wrote the other day in the Style section, “The Obama folks were obviously in love with the idea of Chu — this notion of having an in-house Nobel Prize winner who could be dispatched, superhero-like, to solve intractable problems with the power of his giant brain.”

By  |  03:17 PM ET, 04/06/2011

 
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