Obama losing face over spill

Things were beginning to look up for Barack Obama. Healthcare was won after at least five presidents had failed to reform the system. Financial reform overcame bipartisan objections and wrangling to become law. The initial round of primary elections suggested that theDemocrats might not be in quite as much trouble as everyone had feared.

Then we woke up to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: a huge fire, a bigger explosion that toppled an oil-drilling rig and ruptured the ocean floor a mile below the surface. Shock has turned to anger as a way of life in the Gulf is being destroyed. At first British Petroleum was the target of public anger, especially when it became clear that the company never had a contingency plan to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. It turns out it told the government, specifically the Minerals Management Service (MMS), it had contingency plans to control a “worst-case scenario” of 300,000 gallons of oil gushing from the earth every day. BP lied. It had neither the plan nor the equipment to handle anything remotely on that scale.

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MMS and BP, it turns out, have had a cozy relationship for years, during which time the regulatory agency changed documents or ignored scientific studies that warned of environmental damage and predicted that drilling operations of the scale and at the depth of the one in the Gulf were fraught with danger. The bureaucrats at MMS didn’t want to release the information because it would have delayed the issuance of drilling permits by up to a year. In the congenial revolving-door world of BP and MMS, the lunches, gifts and other perks were more important than pesky details like the destruction of entire ecosystems. As the public and elected officials became more aware of these relationships, the net of anger spread beyond BP to the government agencies that were supposed to be policing them.

The president has been reported to be extremely angry with both BP and the regulators who should have made certain such a disaster could be dealt with quickly. “Just plug the damn hole,” Obama is reported to have sternly instructed his administration. Some have tried. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, after a month of being almost deferential to BP, threatened over the weekend to push it out if the company did not reform. BP wasn’t concerned. No one in government has the experience or the equipment to “plug the hole,” according to BP — a view shared by independent observers and industry experts. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave the company a hard deadline to change the amount and the kind of chemical dispersants it is pouring into Gulf waters. No one knows just what damage those chemicals will do, and there are doubts they are effective. BP says its is the only logical choice and continues to both spray them on the surface and pump them a mile down to where oil continues to gush from the earth.

The government is starting to look powerless. The administration has been pushing BP to move rapidly forward with the so-called “top kill” process — essentially a high-pressure injection of mud and trash to seal off the rupture in the earth. BP says it is working on it, but the effective start date has slipped by over a week. You see, BP has to bring in all the high-tech equipment it was supposed to have stockpiled to do just such a job ... and that takes time. Five weeks so far. We’re told all will be ready to go as I write this, but we’re also told there is only a 60 percent chance it will work. If it doesn’t, BP’s next backup is the drilling of relief wells, which should be completed by August, it says.

More and more Americans are asking why the administration can’t get this under control. Yes, MMS was a mess long before Obama took office. No, the president had nothing to do with the explosion and subsequent disaster. But Americans of all stripes expect their government, and that means President Obama, to take care of problems like this. For five months oil has been pumping into the Gulf at the rate of 20- to 70,000 barrels a day — the government can’t even give us a straight number on that. Unless the administration can show some real progress on stopping the hemorrhaging, voters are going to get a message no one in the White House wants them to consider: This is Obama’s well.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com