The Gulf Oil Spill: A Crisis The White House Can’t Yet Answer

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President Obama’s press office long ago developed a system for dealing with crisis, whether it be a flu epidemic, a natural disaster or an attempt at terrorism on U.S. soil: After confirming the seriousness of the threat, the president’s aides respond with overwhelming force.

Reporters get emailed updates at all hours detailing the president’s engagement, the latest meetings in the Situation Room and the regular intergovernmental conference calls. President Obama appears before cameras, either solemn or professorial, calm or perturbed, to explain his response in simple, declarative sentences. Aides leak quotes from the Oval Office, in which the president invariably calls for sweeping investigations, the application of all government resources, or a total top-to-bottom review of what went wrong. And then, just as it began, the crisis tends to pass. The terrorist suspect is lugged off to jail. The fallen coal miners are buried. The epidemic runs its course.

But the man-made oil leak gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, now in its second month, has refused to follow that course. On Tuesday April 20, an explosion killed 11 people on the Deepwater Horizon. Three days later, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told the press that he believed the underwater leak had been capped. But it had not. Within a week, it became clear that no one knew exactly how to stop the calamity from spreading.

The press office followed its script, emailing reporters updates of the president’s schedule. Investigations were launched, a presidential visit staged, cabinet-level agencies mobilized. Administration officials told reporters that the White House would keep its “boot on the neck” of the BP officials responsible for the cleanup. That was followed by plans announcing harsher regulation of industry, and new legislation to lift the cap on corporate damages. But the oil kept spouting.

Statistics were distributed—22,000 personnel responding, 1.75 million feet of containment boom, 815,000 gallons of dispersant. President Obama appeared in the Rose Garden to condemn the “ridiculous spectacle” of oil industry executives dodging blame before Congress. Yet still an untold amount of oil continued to flow 5,000 feet below. A poll taken by CNN a month after the spill began found that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of Obama’s handling of the spill. Sixty-two percent of Americans said they were not confident in the federal government’s ability to prevent another spill.

On Monday, the White House attempted to take the burgeoning problem head on, bringing Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is leading the response, into the White House briefing room to explain in detail the government’s efforts. But Allen brought little good news.

He said a well cap at this depth “hasn’t been done in the history of oil drilling before,” and that so far efforts had demonstrated only limited results. “The ultimate solution is going to be to drill a relief well, take the pressure off that well and cap it,” Allen continued. “That will be sometime in August.” In other words, the oil is likely to keep flowing for months more, with potentially horrific consequences for sea life and coastline from Louisiana to Florida, if not beyond.

The government, Allen explained, was doing a lot, but when it came to the actual leak, it could not do enough alone.  BP, the company responsible for the sunken rig, was undertaking the effort with federal supervision. “The government doesn’t have everything we need to solve this problem,” Allen explained. “To push BP out of the way would raise the question to replace them with what?”

In other words, there is no obvious answer for Obama, other than to plod forward and prepare for more agony. The American people, long ago disillusioned by the failures of our national institutions of authority, must now witness another massive disappointment. Meanwhile, the political class is looking for any safe ground it can find. On Sunday, Sarah Palin, the once-proud “drill-baby-drill” pundit, blamed Obama for being too cosy with oil companies, even though she offered no evidence, beyond campaign donations from BP, to back up her claim. Liberal pundit Dan Froomkin, of the Huffington Post, went on MSNBC to draw a dreaded comparison. “Initially, I thought the Katrina moment criticisms were a bit out of line,” he said, “but I’m starting to think that the analogy isn’t completely off.”

In a fact sheet released Monday night, the Administration announced that 10.8 million gallons of an oil-water mix had been removed from the sea. Left unmeasured were the vast, ever-growing quantities that remain.