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

By Karen Tumulty and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010; A01

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.

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.

Obama has also called in some of the many scientists on the federal payroll, led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Chu at one point pushed the unusual idea of using gamma rays to peer into the blowout preventer to determine if its valves were closed, a technique he experimented with in graduate school while studying radioactive decay.

The suggestion at first elicited snickering and "Incredible Hulk" jokes. Then they tried it, and it worked. "They weren't hot on his ideas," a senior White House official said of BP's initial reaction to Chu's suggestions. "Now they are."

The president has pressured other oil companies to step up. At a May 3 dinner at the White House with business executives, says one official who was there, Obama bluntly told Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson that he expected the entire petroleum industry to dedicate its engineering talent to fixing the spill and preventing others. It is a question of duty, Obama told him -- and also of the industry's own financial interest.

But Obama and his team are still feeling their way, and it is not at all clear what this vast marshaling of resources will accomplish. Despite all its efforts, the government is still depending on BP to plug the leak. That is not likely to happen until August at the earliest.

The administration is focusing many of its resources on the cleanup operation, which will continue for years, and on mitigating the effects on the environment, which could be felt for decades. The Coast Guard has taken over the enormous effort to restore oil-blackened beaches.

"There's the acute, and there's the chronic," Browner said. "We have moved very much into 'How do you manage this, a difficult situation, over an extended period of time?' "

Obama has at times expressed frustration that the government continues to rely on BP for basic information about the spill. He has insisted that Washington develop its own, more accurate estimates of how much oil is flowing out of the hole.

BP spokeswoman Anne Kolton said the company has tried to "give our best estimate" and to be "open and honest and transparent." Yet whatever trust there was between the administration and BP has seemingly all but disappeared.

The White House has worked to keep the focus of public anger on the company -- and with it, give reassurance that there will be consequences and restitution. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has launched criminal and civil investigations, and the government has presented BP with a first bill for $69 million in cleanup costs. On his visit to the region Friday, Obama warned the firm against "nickel-and-diming" people and businesses harmed by the spill.

Kolton said the company's relationship with the federal government remains one of "coordination and cooperation." Yet she acknowledged: "The frustration is growing on their part. It's growing on our part. It's growing on the part of the people in the gulf."

The White House has also prospected for political opportunity in the crisis. Obama has tried to direct some of the public outrage toward reviving climate-change legislation, a key part of his agenda that is suddenly showing glimmers of life in the Senate.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of drilling is no small concern in a region so heavily dependent on the oil industry.

"This is our most important issue right now. I mean, oil on the ground is almost secondary," said Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph. "This is the entire region's future. It's that significant, that we can't spend a moment on anything else."

Some area officials say the administration is doing a better job of delivering resources to help protect and clean up the Gulf Coast shore. "I think they've finally realized this needs to be a major federal response, so they're ramping that up," Vitter said.

It might also help that the administration is sending as its emissaries officials who have ties to the region, including EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, a New Orleans native, and Tom Strickland, the Louisiana State University-educated chief of staff to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. At the request of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), the White House has also assigned each parish president in Louisiana a personal Coast Guard liaison.

White House officials complain, with some justification, that they are caught between contradictory narratives about their handling of the crisis: that the president is not engaged enough in the details of the response, or that he is getting bogged down in them; that he should spend more time in the gulf making common cause with its residents, or that his repeated trips down there are merely publicity stunts.

And there remains the question of whether, for all its efforts, the administration can really gain control, or even the illusion of it. BP did indeed shear the riser and put the cap on it as planned. But days later, everyone at the White House was still waiting to see if it had succeeded. And how would they know? When they got the word from BP.

Staff writers Michael D. Shear and David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.

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