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With well under control, administration focus shifts

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

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By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010; 4:58 PM

With growing indications that BP has at last brought its rogue well under control in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration is increasingly focused on the energy giant's legal responsibilities for the massive spill, as well as on operational lessons for the oil industry.

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BP declared on its Web site Sunday that a test had revealed that its plugging of the well's casing with cement had been successful.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, sought to reassure anxious consumers about the safety of gulf seafood, but declined to signal whether Obama's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling might be lifted before its slated end in November.

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Carol Browner, the president's energy and climate change adviser, reiterated one of the administration's key talking points on the day: "We're going to remain vigilant. We've got to hold BP accountable."

Reminded that BP has not acknowledged the administration's estimate of the volume of the gulf spill -- 4.9 million barrels -- Browner observed: "I think BP has been silent. But that doesn't matter. We will hold them accountable."

Citing government scientists' review of satellite photos of the spill and pressure tests of the well that suggest the magnitude of lost oil, Browner said that the administration regarded the 4.9 million barrel estimate as reliable.

"Our scientists feel confident in [that number]," she added. BP's penalties and other legal obligations, including payments for natural resource damages, would be determined accordingly, she said.

Browner also used the opportunity to say that, amid the cleanup effort, scientists' tests of gulf waters have revealed nothing of danger so far. In an apparent effort to allay concerns about the safety of eating fish from the gulf, she observed that Obama would be serving gulf seafood to guests attending his birthday party Sunday at the White House.

"No one is saying, 'Don't worry,' " she said. "What we're saying is, right now, the tests show nothing of concern. We are going to continue to test. We're not going away."

With the administration facing criticism from gulf politicians of both parties over its six-month freeze on deepwater drilling and the status of 33 idled oil rigs, Browner said she would not speculate on the chances that the moratorium might be lifted. "If it's appropriate, it will be lifted," she said.

She opened a window onto the early spill response that, in the administration's view, necessitated the moratorium. There were worrisome limits, she observed, to what 6,000 response vessels and 40,000 workers could handle out in the gulf. "Here is what we knew the minute the [spill] happened: that if there was another accident of equal size, we didn't have the equipment to respond. All the boats, all the resources, were being used."

In a remark likely to buoy the region, she emphasized Obama's support of an effort by gulf state senators to ensure that most of BP's payments for any penalties be routed directly to the region. Noting that under current law the payments would go first to the Treasury Department, Browner said that a proposal that 80 percent of the proceeds be sent to the Gulf "makes a lot of sense."

On CNN's "State of the Union," meanwhile, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who led the administration's response to the spill, handed BP a mixed review for its handling of the accident and its aftermath. While giving the company "fairly good marks" for employing the technology that has capped and controlled the well in recent days, Allen suggested that BP had fallen short in dealing with individuals affected by the spill. "It's something [for which] they don't naturally have a capacity or a competency in their company, and it's been very, very hard for them to understand. And that's the lens by which the American people view them, and that's the area where they need to improve the most."

Allen emphasized that among the response lessons is a deepening recognition by an array of companies that the technology finally employed to cap the gusher must be more readily available to all future deepwater drilling. Browner echoed the point, saying: "Some of the oil companies have come forward and said, 'Perhaps we should pre-stage the containment equipment.' We think that makes a lot of sense."


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