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Oil spill makes unlikely partners of BP and the federal government

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

The gulf oil spill has made just about everyone look bad, but the list of winners and losers in the narrative is skewed to the losers. President Obama has been hammered by pundits for failing to project a sense of command in the crisis. His rational explanations of government limitations when it comes to plugging deep-water wells have run headlong into the visceral anguish of a public witnessing black effluent gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. His cool demeanor has not satisfied such critics as his political ally James Carville, who has parked himself on the Gulf Coast and at one point beseeched the president to tell BP executives "I'm your daddy."

Presidential adviser David Axelrod recently struggled to describe the relationship between the administration and BP. Asked pointedly on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether the president trusts Hayward, Axelrod answered, "I, I'm not -- I don't consider them a partner, I don't consider them -- they're not social friends, they're not -- I'm not looking to make judgments about their soul. I just want to make sure that they do what they're required to do."

The strained relationship between the federal government and BP has also become increasingly evident on the technological front.

On Friday, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, the on-scene coordinator of the federal response to the spill, sent a letter to BP demanding that within 48 hours the company produce an explanation of how it will contain more of the leaking oil and add backup systems in case something else goes wrong. The current method uses a cap on the leaking pipe, and is capturing about 15,000 barrels (630,000 gallons) a day, but oil continues to leak around the cap and new estimates suggest that the flow could be 30,000 barrels (1,260,000 gallons) or even 40,000 barrels (1,680,000 gallons) a day.

The company made clear in its response to Watson's letter that there are limits to what it can do safely at a site in the gulf already jammed with more than 25 ships and rigs.

"The risk of operating multiple facilities in close proximity must be carefully managed. Several hundred people are working in a confined space with live hydrocarbons on up to 4 vessels," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles wrote. "This is significantly beyond both BP and industry practice."

The collection of oil had to be suspended Tuesday when a fire, apparently caused by a lightning strike, broke out at the top of the derrick on the drillship Discoverer Enterprise. BP said the fire was quickly extinguished and the company planned to start collecting oil again shortly.

Bottom line: The situation is, both politically and technologically, extremely combustible.

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