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Why doesn't Obama 'take charge' of the BP oil spill?

For an Obama administration spokesman on the BP oil spill, Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant and national incident commander, is admirably straightforward. Working on behalf of the president who ran a campaign based on the mantra, “Yes We Can,” Allen awkwardly insists that, in this case, no, the government can’t.

“There are very few circumstances where the government does not have the means or national power to influence something this large,” Allen said said in an interview with me at the White House on Wednesday. “I think that’s a source of immense frustration to everybody.”

Commentators increasingly lambaste the administration for not “taking over” the cleanup effort. In a politically calculated response, some administration officials have ratcheted up their rhetoric about keeping the federal government’s boot on BP’s neck; they have now threatened to push BP “out of the way,” which just fuels the anger.

But what many of the critics, inside and outside the administration, don’t offer is much sense of what the federal government could really do better if it pushed BP aside, other than symbolic actions of questionable value, such as insisting that President Obama visit the Gulf of Mexico again and, as James Carville put it Wednesday, “take control,” whatever that means. (For what it’s worth, the president will return to the gulf on Friday.)

Under the water and on the surface, Allen says, there simply isn’t much that the federal government can add to what BP is already doing, beyond providing some supplemental brain power, advanced imaging technologies and review of BP’s proposals to plug the leak. Things the government has already furnished. “The private sector owns nearly all the means to deal with this problem and fix the leak and stop the source.”

Why doesn’t the Coast Guard bring in its own submersibles? There’s too much submersible traffic underwater already, he says. A couple of remote operated vehicles even got tangled inserting a tube to collect spewing oil, lengthening the operation.

Why hasn’t the government quickly approved a plan Louisiana officials favor to build sand berms that might protect sensitive wetlands? Because it would take months to execute, anyway. Even so, it’s undergoing requisite review at the Army Corps of Engineers.

Perhaps BP is the one with the technological capabilities on and under the water. But on land, why isn’t the federal government in full control of the cleanup? It essentially is, Allen argues, since Coast Guard officials are the ones making the top-line decisions and coordinating the effort. By law, he says, BP is responsible for cleaning the mess and hires contractors created after the Exxon Valdez spill that specialize in doing just that. But the federal government is responsible for supervising and ensuring the cleanup is effective.

So, according to Allen’s reckoning, Americans should at least feel free to hold the administration accountable for how well the cleanup proceeds, even if it might be a tad unfair to blame Obama for BP’s inability to plug the leak for more than a month. There are some problems that simply cannot be fixed quickly, no matter who is in charge. But on shore, Allen points out, BP and the government have fewer restrictions on how they can react once oil is sighted. That implies more responsibility, particularly since the government is, apparently, taking such an active role.

That will be little comfort to the angry Louisianans who lined up Tuesday at a town hall meeting in Plaquemines Parish to yell at officials about what they perceive as government inaction. Nor will it help the administration’s press operation, which would surely prefer to have BP as an enemy rather than as a partner.

But, like it or not, BP is the administration’s right hand in this effort, a fact Allen has made clear for days. Indeed, part of the reason the administration's messaging on the oil spill falls flat is that some officials attempt to play political defense by excoriating the company, even while it must admit that BP is its partner of necessity. In so doing, the Obama administration legitimizes unfocused and perhaps unfair complaints about the organization of its effort to cap and clean up the oil leak, even though, according to Allen, the White House probably couldn’t do much of substance to redress many of those very criticisms.

The White House is in a hard spot. The president will probably take a hit for this, fair or no, no matter what administration spokespeople say. All the more reason to be straight with Americans, as Allen seems to be, about what the government can and can’t reasonably be expected to do.

By Stephen Stromberg  | May 26, 2010; 4:13 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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The truth is nobody knows whether or not the administration is not doing all it can. But like in any crisis the lack of knowledge doesn't stop anyone from having a strong opinion.

Posted by: fstone | May 26, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

The Government ARE NOT the experts on gas and oil. The smartest thing this administration has done is to STAY OUT OF THIS with regard to management! With all due respect to the severity of this situation, even the EXPERTS in oil extraction and exploration are at odds as to what to do. Do you seriously want the government to take the reigns (and therefore the responsibility) away from areas those industries that have spend decades becoming familiar with? We all want this thing to end, but to panic and grab the wheel away from the driver is THE WRONG thing to do. Perhaps the government should make itself available to these industries with regard to equipment and manpower, but certainly NOT direction!

Posted by: RadGash | May 26, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

What is rather obvious is that there things that are happening that are affected those who live and work on the Gulf Coast. Where's the White House on that? Oh, that's right, a number of states on the Gulf have REPUBLICAN governors. That is too cute on the White House's part to allow the states to beg for help. (Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is in such a spot.) Rather crude and unprofessional for this White House.

Posted by: Puller58 | May 26, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Obama was to busy going to save Barbara Boxer - This president has done nothing but armchair this like a Sunday air chair quarter back ! We are as mad as hell ! Clean this mess up !

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appeared May 18 , 2010, for several Senate hearings. Many lawmakers examined the leadership of the Minerals Management Service. The Interior Department is charged with enforcing environmental and safety rules for energy exploration.

Ken Salazar was working on the Cape Wind commercial wind turbine permit while the Gulf oil platform was on fire! Soon after the platform sank into the Gulf Ken traveled to Massachusetts to announce that he had approved the Cape Wind permit!

On April 28.2010 Ken Salazar announced his decision at a joint Massachusetts State House news conference with Gov. Deval Patrick voting to go forward with the Nantucket, Massachusetts wind turbine project. The same day of this decision more than 5000 barrels of oil had poured into the Gulf of Mexico. (one barrel equals 42 gallons ) .

Several days later the MMS was broken into several sections!

Do we trust our government? In retrospect should congress review the Cape Wind permit given out during the failures of MMS ?

Posted by: fnhaggerty | May 26, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

The same Republican trolls who mock Obama as The Messiah now demand that an academic with NO engineering training or experience take charge and solve this mess now.

Obama, well aware that solving this takes the cooperation of the best deep water operations engineers in the world, is wise enough to listen and stay out of the way.

Patton described it best: "Tell your people what you want done and then leave it to them to do it. They will surprise and delight you with the ingenuity of their solutions."

We have a problem because the prior planning BP should have had to do to get their drilling permit wasn't done because BP declared that the chances of a spill were "remote", and the Bush administration didn't question their asertion, it just let them drill. Now, after the fact and on a totally pragmatic basis BP is doing the disaster planning it should have done to get the drilling permit in the first place. It takes time to cobble up workable solutions to problems a mile below the surface, and the Gulf Coast is paying the price for BP's avoiding paying for the engineering studies it didn't do before it ever contracted for the drilling ship.

BP saved on paperwork and preplanning, and Louisiana gets to make up the savings in the ruined lives of its waterfolk.

More or less SOP for republicans.

Posted by: ceflynline | May 26, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

In 2005 there was the Black Katrina.

This is Obama paying Whites back with a White Katrina.

He's acting very professorial and above it all as he and Rahm watch the livelihoods and dreams of mainly white fishermen and property owners go down the drain.

But, they are also going to destroy the livelihoods of many minorities who rely on these middle class whites.

The people who are being paid back the most though are those like James Carville: White Hypocrites. The Democratic Party is filled with White Hypocrites who have very liberal talking points but then go back to their cozy all white neighborhoods just like Ted "1965 Immigration Act" Kennedy and Tip "Anti-Irish Immigration" O'Neill used to do.

Posted by: richmond_dude | May 26, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, reality gets in the way of a compelling narrative, that Obama should be able to save a dying economy, end two FUBAR wars, inspire the Party of "no" to act like legislators, AND reverse the damage of decades of unregulated oil drilling in the early days of his administration. The reality is that change comes slowly, even in the face of crisis. There was no study of the environment impact of a deep water spill, there was no research into newer methods and technology for cleaning up oil spills, and there was a protocol in place to have the party responsible for the pollution be the primary responder to the spill. The government is almost completely marginalized thanks to the unregulated actions of an industry that effectively owns the regulators. What transpired 8 years ago in the energy policy meetings between Vice-President Cheney and the heads of Big Oil? I'm sure that no record exists and that we will never know.

Posted by: wilsonjmichael | May 26, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Very well written, accurate article. You have it spot on. BP and the industry has the brainpower all over the world to safely extract energy resources and should be in the lead to fix this mess. The government would have no idea what to do, even the PHD physicist Energy Secretary (big deal). The government should protect the environment and bill BP. In fact, the winning strategy should be to let the Cajuns loose and they would protect and clean up their land.

Noone wants this to happen. It's a profound tragedy.

Regrettably many people such as michealjwilson want to continue a narrative that is dilusional at best. "Don't blame Obama, but that damn Bush, he IS responsible...he single handedly changed the regulations, approved permits, told BP not to worry and caused this spill". And that's rational thinking?

Obama can't clean it up but he as a leader, can ensure that everyone works together, sets a firm but positive tone, and ensure that resources are available. Just like Bush did not personally cause this, Obama can't personally clean it up, but his administration needs to be held accountable under the OPA 90 Act which spells out clearly what are their responsibilities.

It's unfortunate that this spill has caused people to lose sight of the following...11 Americans died in the explosion and there are a lot of hard working Americans, your fellow citizens, who risk their lives daily in hazardous jobs and in remote parts of the world you would never even think existed, that provide you energy to make your life better.

Do me one favor, research how many different products come from oil / petrochemicals! It's just not gasoline!!! It's lubricating oils and greases for turbine wind farms, fuels and greases for planes, the space shuttle, army tanks, diapers, tires, crayons etc.
Get educated about how much oil improves your life.

Posted by: bama86 | May 26, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Clearly many of you either did not read the article or completely failed to comprehend it.

Posted by: spongekill | May 26, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

Offshore drilling, BP and the oil spill: what should government do? what can the federal government do? read on...

Posted by: orphedivounguy | May 26, 2010 11:37 PM | Report abuse

The GULF OIL TRAGEDY and CAPE WIND have a lot in common -- stamps of approval from Kenneth Salazar and the MMS goon squad. Our life-giving waters cannot sustain more toxic burdens or spills. See the OFFICIAL MMS DOCUMENT "Cape Wind Energy Project Final Environmental Impact Statement, Jan. 2009 — US Dept. of the Interior, Minerals Management Service" online for details of what MMS approved for the Breadbasket of Nantucket Sound. Ecocide must stop!

Posted by: JonFox1 | May 27, 2010 12:21 AM | Report abuse

As an oil spill professional with over 25 years experience and one who was involved at the birth of the modern oil spills with the Torrey Canyon spill in the UK, there is so much nonsense and misinformation being spread about this spill, about what should be done, who should take charge and how it should be cleaned up.

Let's look at the US National Contingency Plan. This makes it very clear that the Responsible Party, in this case BP, will manage the operational aspects of the spill. This will be at BP's cost. However, BP must present its response plan for approval to the Unified Command, consisting of the National On Scene Co-ordinator, a US Coast Guard Officer, (in this case Admiral Thad Allen) the EPA and the affected State(s).

So, all that BP is doing has been approved by the US Government. Although BP is in control of the approved day to day response, the US Government is in overall command.

Only if the Unified Command feel that the Responsible Party is not carrying out its role properly, will it "Federalise" the spill, take over day to day control and thus be responsible for all the contracts and costs that this will entail.

As to the cause of the spill, let's wait until the full enquiry has determind the causes and responsibilities before making ill informed comments. Regarding the daily amount being spilled it is not helpful for so called experts to pontificate on how much, when they do not have access to the facts.

As to the costs, the numbers being floated are wild speculation, with little foundation in fact.

Reporters and commentators would be well advised to stick to the known facts, question more closely the veracity of the information coming from so-called
"experts" and thus minimise the wild speculation, which only serves to exacerbate the understandable anger and frustration of the US people.

Posted by: rperryoil | May 27, 2010 7:20 AM | Report abuse

Compare Mr Obama's response to the earthquake in Haiti -- the immediate deployment of Operation Unified Response. At the height of the mission's initial response to the Haitian earthquake, more than 20,000 U.S. troops, 20 ships and 130 aircraft were in Haiti to assist that country's rebuilding and relief efforts.
Mr Obama didn't need personal experience as a development engineer or relief worker to order the U.S. military to Haiti. Yet he is incapable of ordering emergency and relief efforts in the Gulf of Mexico? Is U.S. aid for redevelopment only for Afghanistan? Why is American "soft power" to be used only for the benefit of foreign nations?

Posted by: SharonNormal | May 27, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

I think we should use a very innovative and little known technology to plug the leaking pipe in the gulf known as the "Cheney Method". Given the former vice presidents affinity for undisclosed locations, we should stuff him in the blow out preventer and not tell anyone where he is.

Drill Baby Drill!!!

Posted by: oswald_r | May 27, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

The reason why the government's role is different than Haiti, Katrina, or many other natural disasters is that the services needed in those disasters were things we've done many times over. Bring food and water ... erect temporary housing ... provide medical aid ... provide security. Whether it's a tornado in Kansas or an earthquake in Sumatra, the basic steps are the same ... it's usually a question of scale.

In this case, the challenges are different. BP, or more generally, the oil industry, has to take the technical lead on stopping the leak. What could the feds do? They could have requested or organized resources from the other oil companies to bring their best people in to help. But in this country, the government is not in the oil business, unlike many other countries around the world.

For the containment and clean-up, I think the feds are a fairer target. You have to have a more effective plan. That is a public safety issue. But that also means more government regulation. So I hope when new regulations and requirements are put into place, we don't hear the limited government people screaming about the feds' intrusions on their "rights".

Posted by: tgaylord1999 | May 27, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

to all,

it is so typical that BHO & the nitwits/fools/slimy Chicago thugs of his MIS-administration has done NOTHING but TALK, TALK & TALK.

BHO makes Jimmy Carter look COMPETENT & Richard Nixon look HONEST!

just SEEING/HEARING him makes me GAG!

yours, TN46

Posted by: texasnative46 | May 27, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

But, but, I thought Duh One was an expert in everything, and didn't he say he would be able to solve all the problems of the globe, including the oceans? OMG, is he finding out he's not the Second Coming after all? What will a smattering of humility do to his overinflated ego?

I think it's funny indeed, this mouth had so much to say about his predecessor's ineptitude in all matters, and now it's become absolutely clear even to the koolaid crowd that Stinky/BO can't manage his way out of a paper bag, and is a dishonest sleazebag global sycophant to boot.

Posted by: elephant4life | May 27, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Bottom line. It's Day 37 of the Spill. Obama still hasn't declared it a national Emergency! He still hasnt' given Lousiana the VERY SPECIFIC help their Governor is asking for. Begging for.

It is atrocious. And Obama is to blame. he's the commander in chief. He can mobilize resources in a way no one else can. but he hasn't done it. he is inept.

Especially in comparison to the way Bush was skewered over his handling of Katrina -- which in retrospect was really a total failure of the state and city governments to: (a) implement their disaster plans already in place and (b) fix the levees prior to katrina. Lousiana had klnown the levees were not sufficient but they squandered 10's of millions of dollars over 2 decades earmarked to fix the levees.

I am not defending the inadequacy of the Federal repsonse in those 4 days (that's right only 4 days) following Katrina. It was a mess.

But now we have Obama who has wasted 37 days!!! and counting without any coherent federal response. 37 Days!!!! and now the entire Gulf ecosystem being destroyed before our eyes.

And all Obama has done is pass the buck, go to fundraisers, and blame bush.

Obama needs to go.

Posted by: SoylentBrain | May 27, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

"It is the
not the preacher,
who has given us freedom of religion.

It is
not the reporter,
who has given us freedom of the press.

It is
not the poet,
who has given us freedom of speech.

It is
not the campus organizer,
who has given us freedom to assemble.

It is
not the lawyer,
who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is
not the politician,
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the
salutes the Flag,

It is
who serves
under the Flag,


The Commander in Chief, who is not a veteran, will not be attending services at Arlington this Memorial Day. He is otherwise engaged.

Posted by: LETFREEDOMRING2 | May 27, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

You have heard that you sow what you reap. In the 2 year campaign to become president, Obama bashed the Bush administration for it's inability to manage a crises. Now that he is in charge he is learning first hand that the Federal government is largely inable to handle any crises. No matter who is the president, government has become far too large and ineffecient to be "managed". Obama was either naive or lying when he blamed everything from Katrina to the financial meltdown on Bush.

I contend that he was just lying. He was fully aware that government was broken. Now his chickens are coming home to roost. Let's see if he can handle the criticism with the grace of his predecessor. I suspect we will see armies of Obama-ites on the news shows pointing fingers at others as the only crises they are trained to handle are those of political perceptions.

Already you have seen leftie bloggers and radio/TV hosts blaming the oil spill on, who else, Bush.

Posted by: manapp99 | May 27, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Why? Because like everyone else he's BOUGHT.
Real leadership would've seized the situation, as well as BP, and taken command of the situation rather than let our oceans be fouled and habitat destroyed.
The scope of the amoral, unconscionable greed will come into full light once we ALL feel the catastrophic effects this will bring about to our planet.
We won't have to wait long.

Posted by: zeppo | May 27, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Small government Gov. what's his name should get his own state to deal with the mess? After all, small-government libertarians and republicans want the government out of our lives, eh? Why should my taxes go to clean up THEIR mess?

Posted by: HillRat | May 27, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

SoylentBrain: Why should a national Emergency be declared? This isn't a natural disaster, it was caused by BP, and it should be BP's responsibility to pay for whatever damage it caused. Why should Big Brother Government and my taxes pay for it? Let Jindal go and tell BP to clean up their mess. If they don't, then Louisiana should sue BP for the damage it caused. That's what capitalism, the free market, and personal responsibility is all about, right?

Posted by: WK437 | May 27, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

One thing which seems not to get much mention- if the federal government announced it was "taking over," we could expect BP to argue later that it had no responsibility for damages, as it had no power to resolve things differently, etc. As all parties realize that the lawsuits form this incident will result in setlements in the many many billions of dollars, keeping BP in the dock is fairly important.

Ironically, this is a variation on the "too big to fail" fiscal problem- the only way the feds have any chance of making BP pay for the cleanup is to make sure PB cannot cry that big government got in the way.

Such officials as Bobby Jindal should rethink their desire to have the governemnt step in- it is antithetical to his basic political philosophy.

Posted by: jhherring | May 27, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand why the oil leak has not been fixed!!! When the pipe was installed to begin with, did they not install a shut-off valve somewhere along the lines??? And if not, why didn't they?? That should be manatory. If they can put those pipes in the water, underground or whereever, there should be shut-off vales every few miles. Did they think that the pipes are going to last forever, that they didn't need to put in shut-off valves??? And another think, I certainly hope that they are not allowed to raise gas prices because of their errors. American people are already paying too much for gas. When the oil companies report millions and/or billions in profits, it's wrong that american people are having to pay high prices for gas. I can not believe for the life of me that the government has not made the oil companies reduce gas prices. The oil companies could sell gas for $1.50 or $2.00 per gallon and still make millions and/or billions in profits. Looks to me like the oil companies are the ones that are gas gouging!!

Posted by: sparkybambam | May 28, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

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