Politics & Government

Despite new toughness, Obama faces hurdles in spill

A new containment cap, top, is lowered over the broken wellhead at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
A new containment cap, top, is lowered over the broken wellhead at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico Associated Press / BP

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and his team are tantalizingly close to their first major success in plugging BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico after nearly three months of confounding setbacks.

Even if the capping plan that's under way works, many struggles lie ahead, however.

BP still must kill the well, which could take weeks more. Cleaning up the spill has proved far trickier than envisioned. The administration’s long-term economic and environmental response will depend on the magnitude of the damage, which may take months or even years to emerge.

"We're at a game changing point,” National Incident Commander Thad Allen told McClatchy on Monday. Still, Allen said, "Nobody should be happy that this happened. If there’s oil in the water nobody should ever be happy with their response because all you’re doing is trying to make the best out of a bad situation."

The spill has become one of the biggest challenges of Obama's presidency, and how well the Gulf Coast states fare now and in the next few years could play a significant role in shaping the president’s legacy.

After underestimating for weeks how hard it would be for BP to stop the spill and how massive a federal response would be required, the administration has displayed a visibly more assertive role since mid-June in challenging and directing the oil company.

Behind the scenes, Allen said, that recognition came weeks earlier — in mid-to-late May — though still weeks after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 and marked the start of the spill.

“It became so geographically dispersed where you weren’t dealing with a single oil spill anymore, which started to defy the original planning parameters,” Allen said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that ultimately the scope of this thing and the complexity of this thing started to dwarf the response plans and the resources put against that plan and we had to adapt to it.”

Knowing that was one thing. Doing it took weeks.

Then suddenly last Friday, Allen announced that BP was ready to install a tight-fitting containment cap that officials believe can stop within days all oil from leaking into the Gulf until the well is killed.

Disaster response and environmental experts are divided over how harshly to critique the administration’s initial response.

More than 540 miles of coastline are oiled. About one-third of federal waters in the Gulf — 81,181 square miles — are closed to fishing.

As much as 80 percent of the oil that's spilled might still be in the water or along the coast, if the government’s high-range estimate of 60,000 barrels per day is accurate.

More than 46,000 people are involved in the response. BP has reported spending $3.5 billion already.

Nine million feet of boom, dozens of aircraft and more than 6,400 vessels have been deployed.

Despite the effort, more oil enters the Gulf each second. The Coast Guard describes it as a new spill every day.

“When the administration saw this was much worse than was envisioned, the first reaction shouldn’t have been ‘Let’s deliberate,’ ” said Daniel Kaniewski, a special assistant for homeland security under President George W. Bush and the co-author of an analysis of failures in the Hurricane Katrina response. “It should have been, ‘Let’s do this, and BP is paying for whatever it is we're doing.' "

However, Marilyn Heiman, a former Interior Department official in the Clinton administration who now leads the U.S. Arctic Program for the Pew Environment Group, said the administration was hobbled by the sorry state of regulation for decades, the unprecedented scope of the spill and the fact that BP’s paperwork and assurances in those first days painted such a different picture of what to expect.

“BP caused the spill. BP was negligent. BP didn’t have enough equipment to clean up the spill,” she said. “The government did the best with what they had at the moment, which was not very much.”

David M. Uhlmann, who headed the Justice Department's environmental crimes section for seven years during the Clinton and Bush administrations, said the federal government “has lots of experts in a whole bunch of areas” and that “with enough time and rallying of the troops the government can do almost anything. But they’re not set up to do this out the gate.”

Still, officials who are sympathetic to the administration’s limitations say the failure to react fast enough could have lasting consequences.

“Early on, I think there was too much of an optimistic viewpoint of the magnitude of the spill and the impacts of the spill, and not enough was done to aggressively prepare the resources to react to the spill,” said Michael Sole, the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

In recent weeks, “they’ve truly made a lot of progress” in getting needed boom and skimming capacity and other logistics, Sole said. Even so, “Really getting your arms around the long-term effects is going to be complicated. There’s really not enough data or information that’s available.

Jack Harrald, a retired Coast Guard captain and expert in oil spill and disaster response at Virginia Tech, said the nation’s failure to invest sufficiently in training, research and technology was having an impact.

“The sad thing is once it gets out of the box, if they can recover more than 15 percent of the oil they’ll be very lucky in optimum conditions,” Harrald said. “Of course they should do everything they can do, but they shouldn’t be naive and think that throwing more money and resources at this is going to clean it all up. It’s not.”

One of the administration’s key successes so far has been getting BP to agree to put $20 billion into an independent claims panel. The details of that negotiation haven't been made public.

A commission that Obama established to investigate the spill and make recommendations met for the first time Monday. The administration also is moving ahead with a suspension of new deepwater drilling projects after a court blocked its first effort.

Under pressure from independent scientists, the government also abandoned BP’s 5,000-barrel-a-day spill estimate for one as high as 60,000 barrels, but it's still unclear whether scientists ever will reach a consensus on how much oil has spilled.

Allen acknowledged the government response didn’t treat the oil flow estimate as a priority until more than a month into the spill partly because of the early belief the capping would come soon and partly because responders were in a triage mode.

“I look at the turning point as when the top kill was not successful,” Allen said, recalling the failure in the last week of May of the high-profile BP plan to plug the spill.

At that point, Allen said, “We knew we were going to be in this for the long haul. There were issues about what the flow was . . . while early on we could say that we’re throwing everything we’ve got at this, sooner or later you have to know the exact amount that’s being discharged.”

Allen felt it was then necessary for the government to establish an independent estimate because “I was concerned that there were so many different efforts and so many numbers being tossed around.”

In another sign of the administration’s stepped-up engagement, the government increasingly has been issuing directives telling BP how to adjust its kill and containment plans, test for toxins and conduct other operations.

After early delays, the government also is using more offers of foreign assistance.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, is to shape a recovery plan. The government also established a new website (http://www.restorethegulf.gov) that will serve as a clearinghouse for spill and claims information, in addition to BP’s website (http://bit.ly/bhc6pp)and a joint BP-Coast Guard site (http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com/go/site/2931).

Even since the government stepped up its response, however, some Gulf Coast officials, including Plaquemines Parish, La., President Billy Nungesser and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, continued to complain publicly that the bureaucracy was moving too slowly or insufficiently.

Some public health advocates, meanwhile, have said the administration isn’t doing enough to protect thousands of workers in the cleanup. After two months of inaction, regulators and health officials issued recommendations that some workers wear respirators, but the federal government has pursued voluntary compliance with its rules rather than threatening BP with citations.

"They're trying to avoid getting into this legal limbo where they cite an employer but the employer contests in court,” said Eileen Senn, a former state and federal health and safety official for more than 40 years. “But they could cite in one or two places where they think the worst things are going on. They make it out as if it’s all or nothing."

Other officials say they need the Obama administration to press BP harder for information they haven’t been able to get on their own, such as details on the more than 100,000 claims that have been filed.

Cynthia R. Lorenzo, the director of Florida’s Agency for Workforce Innovation, said her agency had been asking BP for “what specific types of businesses are being impacted, where are they located and which workers are losing jobs” so the state could respond. “At this time, we have not received this information,” she said.

Said Sole, the Florida environment secretary: “Not knowing when the end is there is probably the largest frustration.”

(Tish Wells contributed to this report.)


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