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Why hasn't Obama taken charge?

By Kate Sheppard

This week, BP plans to take another stab at stopping the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, after more than four weeks of trying. The company's large containment dome idea failed, and it abandoned plans to try a smaller dome, or top hat. Sometime this week BP is going to try to inject heavy drilling fluids into the well to plug it, and then cement over it – a procedure known as a "top kill."

But by all accounts that procedure will be tough; although it's fairly common in the oil industry, it's never been done at this depth. If it fails, oil could continue hemorrhaging into the gulf all summer.  The company is at work on two relief wells, which entails digging down near the leaking well and intersecting the hole in order to plug it. But we're talking a very deep hole -- 3.5 miles under the sea floor – and it has to tap into a well that's just 7 inches wide. It probably wouldn't be done until August. David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, tells me these relief wells aren't commonly used and are difficult to execute, especially at this depth. With those efforts underway, the spill, he said, "will probably continue at roughly this rate for a while."

And if that doesn't work? The disaster could very well continue until the well runs dry, which would likely take years. That would mean hundreds and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil in the gulf, an environmental horror of untold magnitude.

After weeks of tepid response to the repeated failures to stop the well, the Obama administration over the weekend started to display some actual anger toward BP. Obama took fire in his weekly address. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar blasted the company for missing "deadline after deadline" to stop this disaster, and threatened to "push them out of the way" if the company doesn't figure it out soon.

The heightened anger comes as criticism is mounting against the administration for not taking control of the situation and instead leaving BP in charge, with whispers of "Obama's Katrina" growing ever louder. Now criticism is coming from other Democrats. James Carville admonished the administration Friday on CNN: "They are risking everything by this 'go along with BP' strategy they have that seems like, lackadaisical on this. ... They seem like they're inconvenienced by this, this is some giant thing getting in their way and somehow or another, if you let BP handle it, it'll all go away. It's not going away."

Relying on BP to fix it seems to have been the operating mode so far in the administration. The administration has made it very clear so far that this is BP's spill – right down to the branding on federal government Web pages (see: EPA and Interior). Obama and his team don't want this to be their spill – in large part because, as has become increasingly obvious as time goes by, no one knows how to fix it. BP was supposed to know, and it doesn't. Assuming control of capping it, at this point, would mean assuming responsibility for what is looking more and more like an unstoppable disaster.
 
Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones's Washington bureau. For more of her stories, see here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

By Kendra Nichols  |  May 24, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
 
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Comments

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar blasted the company for missing "deadline after deadline" to stop this disaster, and threatened to "push them out of the way" if the company doesn't figure it out soon.


Here's a hint Secretary Salazar. Once they miss the FIRST DEADLINE, then you tell them to get out of the way. Not threaten them after the "X" number deadline missed.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 24, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Obama's mistake is that he did not show any sense of urgency until long after the public did.

It's possible that he's actually handled the situation as best as it can, but again, he failed to inform us on a daily basis that they were doing everything possible to stop the leak and effect the cleanup.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 24, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

not a good strategy.
it was british petroleum's disaster, but our precious coastline.
when it became clear that bp was failing all of us, the government needed to intercede with the very best experts that we have, with full accountability.
if this cant be capped, and it gushes for years, what is going to happen to us???
what will become of our precious wetlands and marshes?
what will become of our crocodiles and alligators and mollusks and our beautiful bald cypresses and mangroves and egrets, and everything else?????
crocodiles have been on earth for 200 million years.
what are we doing?

Posted by: jkaren | May 24, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

not a good strategy.
it was british petroleum's disaster, but our precious coastline.
when it became clear that bp was failing all of us, the government needed to intercede with the very best experts that we have, with full accountability.
if this cant be capped, and it gushes for years, what is going to happen to us???
what will become of our precious wetlands and marshes?
what will become of our crocodiles and alligators and mollusks and our beautiful bald cypresses and mangroves and egrets, and everything else?????
crocodiles have been on earth for 200 million years.
what are we doing?

Posted by: jkaren | May 24, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I guess that we all wish that the military has some super-secret deep sea submarine, and that Obama, Biden, and Hillary would take the sub down to the bottom of the sea and personally cap the well in their scuba gear. But, as it turns out, only the industry corporations have the technology that can stop the leak, so the administration is managing the problem by giving BP the space to try the solutions, one by one.

What is the lesson? Maybe we should stop all offshore drilling until the government has the technology in place to quickly step in and manage accidents like this, without relying on the corporation that is responsible for the leak, paid for with higher taxation of the oil companies.

The spill shows that the long-standing policy of making the industry fix its own accidents is deeply flawed. The communication from the government has been inadequate and frustrating.

For those who want the government to take charge and fix the problem today, the answer appears to be that the government simply can't. So how about a moratorium on all drilling until the government can fix an accident like this, the way you wish it could be doing today?

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

It isn't clear what you expect a federal takeover to accomplish since all the expertise in this sort of thing resides in the oil industry. The feds don't do wells so they don't hire drilling experts.

Posted by: pj_camp | May 24, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

To all who think Obama is not doing enough, here are some facts:
1) The US government has zero technical capability and equipment to tackle these gusher. Army Coprs of Engineers, Navy.. you name it --the simple fact is they cannot handle the problem. So when people say Obama should take charge or the government should takeover from BP, who is going to handle this?
2)BP has deployed the submersibles and the robots. I am not sure anyone in the US government even knows how to operate these things.
3)About 10 days ago I had read that Obama had sent a crack team of 6-7 scientists from different fields to BP's war room in Houston. They may be brilliant minds but they are not experts in deep water offshore drilling.

I think Obama should just come out and say that only BP/Oil industry can tackle this. This is the truth and he needs to level with american people. Of course, it leads to the uncomfortable question 'why are we allowing companies to drill at these depths when they don't have a clue how to cap a well?' . Just remember the best US submarines can only go upto 2,500 feet. This wellhead is at 5,000 feet.

This is a technical problem beyond the expertise of anyone in the US government. Please realize this, folks. And one more thing, until the gusher is stopped, all the containment/clean up is meaningless. Booms, sandbags, controlled burn etc. is not going to help much.

Posted by: TS11 | May 24, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Patrick,

if they can't clean it up (be it BP or the government) then they shouldn't be out there, plain and simple. I'd be 100% for stopping all drilling in areas of water that we haven't proven that we can clean up from. That to me is the responsible thing to do and we should have been doing that from the start. But again that's not the point of this post, the point is WHY hasn't the administration taken charge because IMO the resources of the federal government have to be bigger, better, stronger than the resources of one single company, right?

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 24, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

"...the point is WHY hasn't the administration taken charge because IMO the resources of the federal government have to be bigger, better, stronger than the resources of one single company, right?"

Not right --- not when it comes to the activity of drilling holes in the seabed and patching them up a mile underwater. If the government had the technology to make it stop this week, it would be stopped this week. Neither industry nor government has any vested interest in allowing the leak to continue -- quite the opposite.

So yes, as we watch the fiasco and see that the government lacks the technology and expertise to fix it, and that BP's technology and expertise is woefully inadequate, the lesson must be that we stop drilling, and only resume when and if the government creates and deploys the resources to fix these problems quickly and effectively.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

visionbrkr says:
"IMO the resources of the federal government have to be bigger, better, stronger than the resources of one single company, right?"

In this case, no. When it comes to stopping the gusher the federal government has no technical expertise and no equipment. As usual the media is doing a poor job of reporting this. I wish the networks and the cable news had more oil industry experts on to explain the technical difficulties, equipment needed, and who can do it.

Posted by: TS11 | May 24, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"The disaster could very well continue until the well runs dry, which would likely take years. That would mean hundreds and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil in the gulf, an environmental horror of untold magnitude."

This is indeed a horror, but "hundreds of millions of gallons" is likely an underestimate. According to ABC News (http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/WhosCounting/oil-spilling-gulf-mexico-bp-basic-calculations/story?id=10705575), more recent estimates of the rate at which the oil is flowing into the Gulf are in the range of 90,000 barrels per day, plus or minus 20%. Even taking the lower bound of this value gives an estimate of about 3 million gallons PER DAY flowing into the Gulf. At this rate, in the 34 days since the explosion, there could already have been 100 million gallons released into the Gulf. Since BP's own estimate of the total amount of oil in the reservoir tapped by the well is "at least 50 million barrels" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/14/us/14oil.html?scp=1&sq=how%20much%20oil%20gallons%20barrels&st=cse), then running the well dry would dump at least 2 billion gallons of oil.

Posted by: suehall | May 24, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Ts11,

fair enough. Then as you said he should come on and say this even though no American wants to hear "we can't stop this".

I do wonder though where the liability begins and ends. Sure BP has huge potential liabilities but how much does the government have towards the fishermen, homeowners in the region? Once BP goes under and files for bankruptcy (assuming it comes to that) then who cleans up and repays the lost income of all the locals whose lives are being destroyed by the 13x Exxon Valdez and counting.

But you're right. They're behind the messaging again.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 24, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Like most smart successful professionals, Obama assumes that the professionals at BP know what they're doing and are basically honest. Obama thinks that he and BP are part of the same technocratic professional team, so when they say, "we're the experts who are best at this, and we will do everything we can to stop this," Obama believes them, because that's what he would do if he were in their position. BP has turned out to be incompetent and untrustworthy and widely believed to prioritizing keeping the well operational rather than destroying it in order to stop the flow of oil. It is only now that the administration is coming to terms with the fact that BP's interests and America's interests do not necessarily coincide.

Posted by: constans | May 24, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

constans:

I am not a defender of BP but from what I hear BP will not produce from this well. If and when the relief well intersects this well it will be capped off and they will move on.

I agree they are incompetent..and greedy.

Posted by: TS11 | May 24, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

"I do wonder though where the liability begins and ends. Sure BP has huge potential liabilities but how much does the government have towards the fishermen, homeowners in the region?"

Legally speaking, I doubt that they have any liability at all. Ask the former residents of the Lower 9th Ward in NOLA how much help they received after the degin flaws and construction problems by the Army Corps of Engineers resulted in the destruction of their homes and their way of life.

BP can write a nearly endless number of checks, but per Exxon Valdez they'll likely wait 20 years before the run out of options to start paying serious money.

The real question is how much permanent damage has been done to the Gulf itself, and to the shorelands of the Gulf coast.

Drill baby drill.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

if they cant cap this well, what is going to happen?

if it continues to gush oil, will it destroy all of our wetlands and marshes? our shorebirds? our shellfish? sea creatures? algae?
what will happen to our beaches? our health?
the food chain in the ocean?
our food chain?
.........what will the health hazards be to human beings?
it is hard to imagine what the consequences might be.
a few weeks ago, i read something that said, nature can mend herself, and eventually, new reefs will form on the wreck and ruin of the deep horizon apparatus.....but when will that happen. will we be around to see it?

Posted by: jkaren | May 24, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

What can the fed gvmt do if it takes over from BP?

At least two things:

1) hire thousands of people to start cleaning up and then pass the bill to BP.

2) Let out a bid for private companies to kill the well. The gvmt would then give the winner a contract and of course pass the bill to BP.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 24, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

jkaren,

Your questions are mine.

And I will add one other:

Hurricane season approaches. How would a major hurricane churning over the water and on to the land complicate everything, when the Gulf is still full of oil?

We could use some good luck with this thing, for once. I hope the latest Rube Goldberg BP solution on Wednesday actually works. Either way, this story won't be going away for a long time.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Lomillialor,

I think as more oil comes ashore, the government will organize the clean-up. I agree that this time all of the workers should be fairly paid, and the bill should go to BP. But I am not sure what legal constraints there might be with that common sense idea.

Realistically, I think soliciting bids for someone else to stop the leak is probably no faster or more effective than letting BP work through their ideas, and then put in the relief well weeks fron now when the other ideas are exhausted.

Are there any other companies claiming they could stop it? If any independent scientist knew a sure-fire way to stop the leak tomorrow, using existing technology, BP would be very happy to make that scientist very rich.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

:-(

Posted by: jkaren | May 24, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Does any one has answers to:
How did MMS allow any company to dig a hole at the bottom of Gulf when MMS does not have the tools to plug it?
Why Congress did not establish an agency similar to NASA to ensure proper technology is developed?
How far can a hurriane bring the sludge - may be to DC?
How far south can the oil travel?
Why is our estimable WP not giving more space to this story?

Posted by: kr_gullapalli | May 24, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

kr_gullapalli,

My understanding from media accounts is that the law, following Exxon Valdez, has actually required the oil companies to bear the responsibility of clean-up. A possible criminal problem for BP is that they filed documents with MMS assuring that they had proven & reliable technology to stop a leak (when obviously, as we now see, no such technology has ever existed). MMS had considered new regulations that would have required remote-operated acoustic switches like the Brazilians and the Norwegians use, but MMS decided not to require them because of the expense to the industry.

As for no "NASA" style agency, I don't think Congress realized until this leak happened that industry had no strategy for this kind of spill, and the Congress assumed that MMS was ensuring proper safety precautions. Sometimes you are unaware of a gap in a system until a system fails.

Since there is no reliable calculation of the number of gallons leaking each day, or when it will stop, I don't think anyone can answer yet how far the oil may travel on the currents, with or without tropical storms and hurricanes in the mix.

WP is covering it, but a lot of other big stories are competing, and in fairness the frustration with the oil leak is that there is so little hard information to report. So much is unknown. But as the oil continues to come ashore, and as the magnitude of the damage becomes better understood, the story can only grow as each week passes.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

This is BP's Katrina and that's a fact.

Hurricane Katrina was an "Act of God", which after the fact, the U.S., government allowed human suffering to prevail for days on end.

BP's Katrina is an "Act of the Greedy CEOs at BP", and they could have prevented this tragedy, if they had of implemented the "required" controls to prevent such an environmental tragedy.

Posted by: lcarter0311 | May 24, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

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