For U.S. government and BP, no choice but to work together

Video shows main oil leak from end of riser at BP well in Gulf of Mexico. The second part shows the containment dome being lowered into place.
By Juliet Eilperin
Friday, May 14, 2010

Within hours of the massive April 20 explosion on Deepwater Horizon, the U.S. government launched an urgent and carefully managed response to demonstrate its control of the emerging disaster, sending Coast Guard ships to the site, keeping the president informed and posting projections of how an oil spill might affect travel.

What the Obama administration did not realize was how the arcane world of offshore drilling would collide with official Washington as politicians began kibitzing about rig mechanisms on Sunday talk shows and oil executives gave daily briefings about their disaster-management skills. The administration probably had no idea that it would find itself in many ways dependent on a foreign oil company -- both foe and needed friend in the response.

It was a relationship for which neither the White House nor BP was well prepared. And it stands in contrast to the arm's-length distance that the U.S. government kept from Exxon after the Valdez spill in 1989. Thomas A. Campbell, who served as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's general counsel at the time, said it would have been politically toxic for the government to collaborate: "We weren't able to even talk to Exxon, except on purely technical issues."

Why the change? The success or failure of the Obama administration's response -- involving about 13,000 workers and 460 vessels, along with 1.4 million feet of boom laid against the spreading slick -- depends largely on BP's expertise and technology.

Defining the terms

From the beginning, the oil giant has highlighted the collaborative nature of its relationship with the administration. "BP is hugely appreciative of the cooperation and of what we're receiving at all levels of government, from the very top of the administration down through the unified command and state and local governments," spokesman Andrew Gowers said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, meanwhile, has tried to distance the administration from BP, saying, "I wouldn't characterize them as our partner. I would characterize them as the responsible party," adding that the company's role provides a clear mandate: "They've got to kill this well, clean up the ocean and pay the claims."

And as even the first part of this three-pronged mission has eluded the company's grasp, the administration has publicly lambasted BP. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, "Our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum." From the start, the federal government pushed BP to act quickly: The oil giant planned to bring in remote-operated vehicles a few days after the explosion to see what was happening underwater, and Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes insisted that BP bring them immediately. BP also proposed setting up the unified command center in Houston, a decision Coast Guard and Interior officials overruled, saying the center should be closer to the work site, in Robert, La.

When it comes to stanching the flow of oil, however, the administration has often been reduced to the role of questioner. On the evening of April 27, Salazar spent two hours grilling BP chief executive Tony Hayward and BP America President Lamar McKay on details about the blowout preventer, apparently exhausting their knowledge of the device.

"You've got to talk more to our technical experts, because you're asking questions I can't answer," Hayward said.

Now the government has embedded senior administration scientists at BP's headquarters in Houston, including the heads of three national labs and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Expertise and equipment

The government is relying on BP's expertise and its equipment: Salazar joined Napolitano in calling the Pentagon to ask whether it had better submersible equipment to augment or replace the vehicles that BP had deployed. The answer, according to an administration official, was that the military did not have anything that could operate on the seabed and match the BP equipment's level of precision.

At times BP has pushed back on the administration's demands, including when the Navy proposed bringing in an amphibious vessel at the company's expense. One company official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said BP had urged the government to develop "a realistic shopping list."

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