Obama administration conflicted about relying on BP to stop gulf oil spill

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Karen Tumulty and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The tenuous alliance among the Obama administration, the oil firm BP and Gulf Coast officials was visibly fraying on Monday, with exasperation on all sides mounting as oil from a deep-water gusher began lapping at the region's environmentally fragile shoreline.

Meanwhile, the administration faced growing questions about whether it should be taking more control of the situation, rather than ceding so much of the decision-making about stopping the oil spill to the company that created it.

On the coast, local officials complained that Washington has been too slow in helping them hold back the oil. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said that the administration has not provided enough equipment -- including booms, skimmers, vacuums and barges -- and that it has stood in the way of his proposal to erect artificial barrier islands. Federal officials say that latter plan needs more study.

"BP is the responsible party, but we need the federal government to make sure that they are held accountable and that they are indeed responsible. Our way of life depends on it," Jindal said at a news conference in Galliano, La., with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

With the realization that images of spoiled beaches and oil-covered animals are likely to become much worse in the coming weeks, the administration is torn between a political imperative -- that it take a hard line with the oil giant -- and a practical one -- that it has no choice but to rely on the company to stop the flow.

Some administration officials have started taking a tougher stance with BP, with Salazar threatening on Sunday to "push them out" if the company did not perform.

But when Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is directing the government's disaster response, was asked about Salazar's comment during a briefing Monday at the White House, he dismissed it as "more of a metaphor." Allen added: "To push BP out of the way would raise the question of: Replace them with what?"

And BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told reporters on a conference call: "I don't know of anything else we could do, but if the government felt there were other things to do, it is clearly within their power to do that."

Even in one of the few areas where the government has publicly tried to overrule BP -- over its choice of chemical dispersants -- it has not gotten its way. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency told BP that it had 24 hours to find a less toxic alternative to the chemical it had been using to break up the oil. The company, however, replied that no alternatives are available in large enough quantities to deal with the spill.

On Monday, the EPA responded that BP should keep looking. In the meantime, the agency said, it would conduct its own tests on other chemical dispersants, which was an acknowledgment that it has no answer either.

Tensions are likely to grow if BP's next effort to stop the spill -- a "top kill," which involves pumping in heavy fluids and is scheduled for Wednesday -- does not succeed. That could be followed by another inventively named maneuver, a "junk shot," that would clog the opening with materials that include golf balls and pieces of tire and rope. Or, more likely, BP would try to attach a new funneling device or lower a new blowout preventer on top of the 450-ton one that failed.

But if those measures prove ineffective, it may be August before the leak is stopped through the completion of a relief well, Allen said.

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