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

By Karen Tumulty and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; A01

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.

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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