A month after oil spill began, Obama begins taking charge

McClatchy NewspapersMay 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Facing a growing furor over the monthlong Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the White House Friday named two environmentalists to lead a presidential commission investigating the disaster.

The appointments of former Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham and William K. Reilly, who led the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, came as the Obama administration tried to defend its handling of the spill against critics who charge that the oil giant BP has been dragging its feet in measuring how much oil the company's ruptured well is spewing.

A month after the spill began, the Obama administration also appeared to be distancing itself from BP, forming a task force this week to measure the spilled crude that includes an engineering professor who's told Congress that he thinks the spill is far larger than originally thought, but not a representative from BP.

Administration officials, who until now have stressed BP's preeminent role in cleanup efforts as the "responsible party," offered no explanation for BP's exclusion from the panel, which a top Coast Guard official said was expected to deliver a new estimate of the spill's size early next week.

A Coast Guard spokesman, Christopher O'Neil, said BP would be a "welcome and needed contributor" to the task force by providing "reams of data" that the panel will need to estimate the flow rate.

The move to keep BP from being a full member of the task force may be intended to provide credibility for the new estimate after nearly two weeks of challenges to the company's official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. Experts who have studied videos of the spill have pegged the amount at many times that. Legal experts told McClatchy this week that a low estimate would favor BP in future court cases about the spill.

The appointments of Graham and Reilly to head the presidential commission, which is expected to study in part the safety of offshore oil drilling, also tilted against the oil industry. The appointments were confirmed by an administration official who wasn't authorized to be quoted.

Graham, a longtime Florida senator who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, positioned himself during his campaign as an opponent of offshore drilling and frequently spoke about the need to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Reilly is a past president of the World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation. He also is a founding partner of a private equity fund, Aqua International Partners, which invests in water and renewable energy.

The White House's response came at the end of a week in which BP bowed to calls from scientists and members of Congress to release additional undersea video of the leaking well in order to determine how much oil was spilling into the Gulf. The company said for weeks that it was focused on stopping the leak, not measuring it, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs Friday rejected allegations that the administration allowed BP to drag its feet.

"We have pushed them to make things more public," Gibbs said. "There are laws that govern the proprietary information of companies. We can't change each and every one of those laws."

Obama announced the commission in his weekly video address Saturday.

With oil starting to wash ashore in Louisiana and officials in five Gulf coast states worried about the impact on fisheries and tourism, Florida's congressional delegation, which helped lead the charge to get BP to release more video, pressed the administration in a letter to do more to determine how much oil is spewing beneath the water's surface.

"There is a significant surface oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, but we believe that the larger threat may be from oil suspended in the water column below the ocean's surface," the delegation wrote. "Unfortunately, it is much harder to observe subsurface oil. We do not know the dimensions, nature or movement of the threat."

The Obama administration organized a team of independent experts this week to study BP's footage and provide its own analysis "sometime next week," a Coast Guard official said. Scientists and members of Congress said the decision came too late.

In a briefing for the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on Friday, Sylvia Earle, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, called it "inconceivable that we do not have a good grip on how much oil is escaping" given the details available from the live video feed, such as the size of the opening and the speed of the oil gush.

McClatchy reported Thursday that BP's resistance to taking measurements runs counter to the company's own regional plan for dealing with offshore leaks, which states that "an accurate estimation of the spill's total volume . . . is essential in providing preliminary data to plan and initiate cleanup operations."

In addition, McClatchy's report pointed out that the lack of precision in the gauging the size of the spill could save BP millions in later court action.

"It's clear BP has been lying about what has been going on,'' said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "I just think it's time to stop listening to BP and bring in real scientists to ensure we are dealing with the facts."

(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)

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