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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.

Another flash point may come on Thursday, when Salazar is scheduled to give President Obama his report on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that caused the spill five weeks ago.

Ultimately, no matter how culpable BP is found to be, there will be questions about the government's responsibility as well.

It is now apparent that BP did not have an effective plan for dealing with a large spill, despite its assertion in a March 2009 exploration plan submitted to the Minerals Management Service that it could handle a "worst-case scenario" blowout that produced 300,000 gallons a day.

But it appears that no other company drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico had such a plan, either, or it would have been brought in to stop the spill. That ultimately calls into question the rigor of the MMS, which could have required the stockpiling of the equipment that it has taken BP five weeks to assemble for Wednesday's effort to stop the spill at the well head. Such equipment could have been owned jointly by several companies or by the Coast Guard.

"Industry will have to come up with a different answer for that," said Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman. "This is a game-changing event. It causes you to revise your thinking, including how many layers of redundancies and what if the blowout preventer fails at that depth and what do you have to contain it. All those things are up for debate now. I wouldn't be surprised if they were not issues the president wouldn't be talking about in the not-so-distant future."

Since the oil rig exploded, the White House has tried to project a posture that is unflappable and in command.

But to those tasked with keeping the president apprised of the disaster, Obama's clenched jaw is becoming an increasingly familiar sight. During one of those sessions in the Oval Office the first week after the spill, a president who rarely vents his frustration cut his aides short, according to one who was there.

"Plug the damn hole," Obama told them.

The hole continues to spew, however, in quantities now thought to be three to five times the 5,000 barrels a day originally estimated.

That the blowout came only weeks after Obama announced a plan to expand offshore drilling is an accident of timing that is inconvenient politically, but also a point on which the president has expressed dismay internally. In announcing and defending his drilling decision, he repeatedly stressed that the technology the oil industry uses is safe. But from the beginning of the crisis, the administration has run into a different reality when it comes to the risks of deep-water drilling.

While the government may have made a mistake in relying on the oil industry and its assurances then, it finds it has little choice now.

"If you could control an oil spill with lawyers and regulation-writers, and by signing papers and obtaining court injunctions . . . then maybe the U.S. government could do something," said Byron W. King, an energy analyst at Agora Financial. "But really, Uncle Sam has almost no institutional ability to control the oil spill. For that, you need people with technical authority, technical skill and firms with industrial capabilities."

Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold in Washington and Juliet Eilperin on the Gulf Coast contributed to this report.

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