By Karen Tumulty and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010; A01
The spreading environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to become a crisis of public confidence for President Obama, who stepped forward Friday to declare that "the system failed, and it failed badly," and included the federal government among those who "share that responsibility."
He saved his most withering criticism for the oil companies involved, whose executives came up short on everything but evasiveness when they were called to account on Capitol Hill this week.
"I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle during the congressional hearings into this matter," Obama said. "You had executives of BP and Transocean and Halliburton falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else. The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't."
What is making an impression, a deepening one, is a display of frustration and impotence on the part of those on the front line. New questions are also being raised about whether this disaster might have been avoided if Washington had done its job right in the first place.
Effort after effort has failed to contain the oil spill that began with the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig under a mile of seawater more than 40 miles off Louisiana. This week, scientists and environmental groups expressed doubts about the government estimate of the size of the leak, saying it might be more than five or even 10 times the rate of 5,000 barrels a day that has been cited for weeks. And now, playing almost continuously on cable news, there is video of what those fighting to contain the leak are up against: a furious plume of oil and gas from the Gulf floor.
As officials come to grips with what lies ahead in stopping the leak and cleaning up the damage, they are also looking over their shoulders at what might have prevented it. "For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill," Obama acknowledged. "It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies."
Interviews with former Minerals Management Service employees and reviews of key documents, suggest that the Interior Department agency charged with managing the natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf regularly made decisions that favored industry interests over environmental protections.
When the agency conducted environmental assessments in the region in 2001, top officials put forward spill scenarios that did not show the worst case, according to a former agency biologist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The former official also contended that when MMS officials consulted with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service about how to develop regulations that would protect marine mammals and endangered species from the disruptions to their environment that go along with oil exploration and production, MMS fought to water down NOAA's proposal.
Obama lauded Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for having recognized and addressed the problems and said that he has asked Salazar to conduct "a top-to-bottom reform of the Minerals Management Service." In an effort to avoid an in-house conflict of interest, Salazar has announced a plan to separate the part of the agency that issues drilling permits and collects royalties from the part that inspects and enforces safety regulations.
Lawmakers such as House Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) have nonetheless ramped up their scrutiny of the current administration's possible contribution to the accident.
Rahall has sent letters to Salazar and Nancy Sutley, who leads the White House Council of Environmental Quality, asking them to provide him with "all documents" that would explain the circumstances under which the federal government has granted the kind of waivers that exempted BP from having to conduct a detailed environmental analysis.
Rahall has also asked MMS to reveal information on any proposals for safety and environmental rules floated in the past decade among Interior officials or "industry stakeholders" that have not become law.
The nature of this disaster poses a sensitive political challenge for the president and his administration. As a candidate, he decried the influence of "big oil" on a Republican White House where both the president and vice president had worked in the industry.
Obama's political exposure has also been increased by the fact that, to the anger of many liberals and environmentalists, he had called for an expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling: "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced," Obama had said 18 days before the rig explosion, in comments he made during a town hall meeting in South Carolina. "Even during Katrina, the spills didn't come from the oil rigs; they came from the refineries onshore."
The president has since put his plans for more drilling on hold, until officials find the cause of the Gulf of Mexico leak. But on Friday, he maintained that domestic oil drilling continues to be part of his overall energy strategy.
Obama called it "essential that going forward we put in place every necessary safeguard and protection so that a tragedy like this oil spill does not happen again. . . . I will not tolerate more finger-pointing or irresponsibility."