BP's Oil: Fouling the White House Along with the Gulf

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Patrick Semansky / AP

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, center, speaks at a press conference in Galliano, La., on May 24, 2010

Three dozen days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the reports from the Gulf have taken on a drumbeat of familiarity — with more and more shoreline getting fouled, more and more wildlife being killed and a steady parade of Washington officials flying in for appearances. On Monday, May 24, it was Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and no fewer than five U.S. Senators. All the while, Administration officials continue to talk tough. Salazar, who had already promised to "keep the boot on the neck" of British Petroleum, followed up Monday by promising an "Apollo 13–type effort" to end the crisis — which is a fair enough analogy, except that there's no single flight director running the show, and by now, the astronauts would all be dead.

Still, there's hope — a little — that the endgame could begin as early Wednesday morning. That's when BP is set to begin its "top kill" operation, pumping a heavy, mudlike substance into the broken well pipe and then, if that works, sealing it permanently with cement. For more than a week, BP has been promising that the top kill was just a day or two away, but the schedule has slipped repeatedly. This is the first time it has seemed to hold, and the company is allowing itself a glimmer of official optimism.

"We rate the probability of success between 60 and 70%," said BP chief executive Tony Hayward.

No matter what happens Wednesday, though, the people of the Gulf states will not be the only ones left with a massive mess to clean up. So will Washington. While it would be nice to find a single party responsible for the calamity, this time there will be no handy Brownie to blame. Everyone in the Capital shares some responsibility for the spill, and everyone will have to help prevent another one.

Though the White House has fought hard against the idea that the Gulf crisis will become "Obama's Katrina," five weeks on, the charge is beginning to stick — fairly or not. A CNN poll found that 51% of Americans disapprove of how the Administration is managing the emergency — better than BP's 75% disapproval, to be sure, but bad nonetheless, particularly for a White House whose brand is all about competence. Part of the Administration's trouble has come simply from poor messaging.

Salazar made headlines Monday with his promise that "if we find out that they're [BP] not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately" — a muscular statement that had a lot of people asking, in effect, Really? BP is legally and financially responsible for the spill, and while the company's ineffective performance so far has sent a lot of commentators and green bloggers around the bend — calling for a Manhattan Project–type gathering of the best minds in government and industry to solve the problem — the sad fact is, BP might be the best shot we've got.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, explicitly places the burden of cleaning up a spill on the company that caused it but vests the President with the authority to mobilize federal or state assets to ensure the work gets done. That could include the Navy, the National Guard and anyone else the President taps, but more is not always better. The Coast Guard has been on the scene almost since the beginning of the emergency, and more than 1,000 vessels and 22,000 people have been at work trying to contain, burn and disperse the oil.

The problem is, the ultimate solution to the disaster — stopping the gusher — has to be performed on the ocean floor. It's industry that does this kind of thing for a living, and it's industry that has the submersibles, the know-how and the trained personnel at the ready. The fact that BP hasn't succeeded yet does not mean that there's anyone better out there.

"To push BP out of the way would raise a question: To replace them with what?" asks Admiral Thad Allen, head of the Coast Guard's spill operations. "What we need to make sure is that they execute their responsibilities as the responsible party and we carry out our responsibilities and be accountable as the on-scene federal coordinators."

Even some Republicans, who see no shortage of election-year hay to make out of anything that looks like White House fecklessness, concede that there's not much more Washington can do. "They can fire BP and take it over," said GOP Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee on Face the Nation on Sunday, "but the truth is, the federal government probably doesn't have the capacity to do that."

What the federal government will — and should — have to answer for is the lax oversight that helped allow the problem to occur in the first place. BP has partly explained its serial failures to stop the spill by pleading that none of the techniques it's tried have ever been used in water depths of 5,000 ft. (1,500 m) before. So why was drilling permitted to take place so deep before those or other methods were tested and proved?

Enforcing safety rules is the responsibility of the Interior Department's Materials Management Service (MMS). Earlier this month, Salazar announced he was splitting the MMS in two, separating the part that governs well operations from the part that grants leases and collects royalties, thereby eliminating a possible conflict of interest. But even after the moratorium on offshore drilling the President announced in the wake of the April 20 explosion, at least 19 environmental waivers and 17 permits for drilling were issued. The White House has hastened to explain that these were for existing projects, not new ones, but old and new wells alike can leak, and the MMS could hardly have improved its oversight protocols so quickly.

Worse is an investigation reported in the May 25 New York Times about MMS misconduct from 2005 to 2008, including inspectors who accepted meals, tickets to sporting events and other gifts from well owners whose projects they were overseeing, and one who was reportedly under the influence of crystal meth during an on-site inspection. Yes, these were Bush-era incidents, but the MMS — like the crisis as a whole — is Obama's now, and it falls to his White House to clean it up. As with the fouled bayous and fisheries of Louisiana, that recovery work is likely to be very slow — and rarely pretty.