Tuesday, May 25, 2010

W.H. takes heat over spill response


Carol E. Lee, Glenn Thrush Carol E. Lee, Glenn Thrush

Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, has a blunt message for Barack Obama: Cut out the middleman, Mr. President.

“There’s been a failure of leadership on all levels. Who in the hell is in charge?” said Nungesser, who is prodding the administration to back a controversial plan to build sand barriers to block the oil.

“I’m a big Republican, but the president spent two hours with me and really impressed me. ... He really seems to care, but I don’t think he’s getting good advice,” he told POLITICO. “I don’t think they’re telling him the truth about what’s going on around here. He needs to get more personally involved.”

Until this week, the Obama administration had largely managed to deflect responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon disaster onto others — vowing to keep a “boot on the throat” of BP, while slamming lax oversight on the part of federal regulators during the Bush administration.

But now, with crude lapping into the bayou, even Obama’s defenders have turned critical. A White House that prides itself on operational competence and message discipline has been frustrated by an environmental catastrophe it can’t predict, can’t control and can’t out-message — and the strain is showing.
A majority of Americans, by 51 percent to 46 percent, now disapprove of Obama’s handling of the crisis, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll. An Associated Press-GfK survey taken less than two weeks ago showed that only one-third of those polled gave Obama low marks for his response.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs surprised reporters at the daily briefing Monday by announcing the president would answer questions about the spill in person Thursday — the first presidential news conference Obama has given in months.

Earlier, Louisiana officials, as they watch helplessly while oil fouls fragile marshland, destroying plants and killing birds and fish, also stepped up their calls on the Obama administration to push aside BP and take charge of the cleanup.

“We have been frustrated with the disjointed effort to date that has too often meant too little, too late to stop the oil from hitting our coast,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said during a Monday news conference at Port Fourchon with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“BP is the responsible party, but we need the federal government to make sure they are held accountable and that they are indeed responsible. Our way of life depends on it,” Jindal said.

Gen. Russel L. Honore, who helped oversee the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, didn’t criticize the administration’s actions — but suggested the federal government could assert more control by declaring a national disaster in the Gulf.

“My assessment is, at this point this is a national disaster,” Honore said. “This could be a generational impact on the Gulf.”

But back at the White House, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, the man in charge of the U.S. response, shot down the idea of a federal takeover of the crisis — walking back Salazar’s threat over the weekend to “push out” BP if it doesn’t cap the well quickly.

“To push BP out of the way, it would raise the question, to replace them with what?” Allen asked. “They’re exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak. ... I am satisfied with the coordination that’s going on. ... There’s no reason to make a change.”

Even though Obama has criticized the government’s relationship with BP as too “cozy” over the years, Allen refused to blast embattled BP CEO Tony Hayward. “I judge personally my communications with anybody, including Tony Hayward, and I would characterize when I tell him something, he says he understands it; he follows up,” he said.

The real problem, Allen said, is that only big oil companies — and not the federal government — have the capacity to fight a broken pipe a mile under water.

Allen’s appearance came as the administration moved to counter negative perceptions of its response, even as BP’s effort to cap the gushing mile-deep pipe foundered and the company tangled with the Environmental Protection Agency over the use of chemical dispersants to break up the spill.

Obama held a briefing call Monday morning with the four Gulf Coast governors to offer a status update and underscore his personal commitment to the issue.

“I think what the president wanted to indicate today was that he is on it, which is reassuring, but we all need to stay on it, and I think that’s very important,” said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for Senate this fall as an independent. “I think that part of being on the call was, in some sense, a response to what was happening in Louisiana.”

Gibbs told reporters there are currently no plans for Obama to return to the Gulf Coast — but his itinerary could quickly change later this week, after the president flies to California in support of Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer on Tuesday, another White House official later said.

During the president’s visit three weeks ago, Nungesser huddled with Obama and eventually sold the president on a plan to position boats to monitor the first shore wave of crude from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Since then, Nungesser said that when he’s proposed other fixes, he’s been shunted to a procession of unresponsive bureaucrats.

Jindal on Monday also criticized the administration for not quickly supplying local responders with all the materials they need to erect booms around endangered wetlands — and is pushing the Army Corps of Engineers to support the plan to position berms, made of backfilled sand, in the path of the oil.

The Corps is currently considering the scheme, but administration officials dismiss the notion that it’s a quick fix, estimating the berms could take between six and nine months to build.

Honore also said there is more that can be done. He urged the administration to start collecting money from BP immediately, set up a streamlined system for individuals filing claims and explore the possibility of assessing daily fines against BP for each day the well isn’t capped.

“That money can go into a trust fund, and we draw from that until we fix this problem,” he said. “Now I think we need to have them start paying upfront for the potential loss. And we need to start drawing that money down now and don’t wait for BP to decide when they’re going to start paying.”

Gibbs said BP is already paying for the cleanup, though he said he didn’t know how much. As for Honore’s idea about declaring a national emergency, Gibbs said none of the states adjacent to the spill have requested designation as disaster areas, adding, “There are different tools for different types of events, and [the Stafford Act governing disaster declarations] isn’t the right tool here.”

Elgie Holstein, an oil-spill expert with the Environmental Defense Fund who served as an adviser to Obama during the 2008 campaign, suggested that Obama add one more element to his response plan: a pledge to create a government-run fleet capable of dealing with the next blown well.

“We as a country have not put in place a system for regulating or responding to complex and costly frontier drilling,” Holstein said. “The Obama administration simply does not have at its disposal the kind of expertise and equipment” to cap the well.

“The frontline of response lies with oil company field generals and not the administration — and that puts the president at a disadvantage,” he added.

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