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The White House

With oil spill, White House struggles to assert control of the unknown

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

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By Karen Tumulty and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

In a time of crisis, no resource is so precious, or so perishable, as credibility. Last weekend, the Obama White House discovered that it had sprung another leak.

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At a public briefing on May 29, BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, described the company's latest last-ditch maneuver to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: hacking the gushing pipe at the bottom of the gulf, so that a cap could be installed over it. Twice, Suttles said that shearing the riser would have little effect on the size of the leak.

White House officials could not believe what they were hearing. The administration's own analysis suggested the opposite, that cutting the riser could increase the flow of oil by 20 percent, at least temporarily.

For weeks, federal officials had stood alongside BP executives at the briefings, reinforcing doubts about who was really in charge and putting the government in the position of vouching, by its mere presence, for BP's veracity. No longer. The White House informed BP that it was putting an end to the joint appearances.

The administration is now scrambling to reclaim control, the appearance and the reality of it, over a situation that defies both.

It has been a hasty and somewhat chaotic mobilization of a wide array of disparate government resources -- including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the military -- that is unlike anything attempted before. The procedures "on the books aren't ready for this," said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Nobody has ever done what we are trying to do."

The new normal at the Obama White House has required that a whole new schedule be laid on top of the old one. There is a daily oil-spill conference call for Cabinet officers, one for their deputies, yet another with the governors of affected states, and sometimes as many as three briefings a day that include the president himself.

"It's not as herky-jerky as it may come across," said Carol Browner, Obama's energy and climate adviser. "It's much more systematic."

But bureaucracies being what they are, it is also far from seamless. Though every day is jammed with interagency conference calls and a river of e-mails in between, some officials complain that at times they still feel like they are talking past each other.

Occasionally, signals get crossed. On Wednesday, the Minerals Management Service approved two shallow-water drilling permits, only to reverse both the next day, along with those for three other shallow-water operations. Some officials in the Gulf Coast region have complained that they can't figure out what the administration's drilling policy really is these days.

"Until they give us the new rule book, there is effectively a moratorium," said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has criticized the government's response.

In his radio address Saturday, Obama enumerated the scope of his endeavor to contain the damage, including 17,500 National Guard troops; 20,000 personnel protecting the waters and coasts; 1,900 vessels; 4.3 million feet of boom.


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