Can Obama Control Oil-Spill Political Damage?

Trouble on the Horizon: A timeline of the oil spill. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

BP officials hope their "top kill" works, choking off a catastrophically leaky oil well with an injection of heavy mud. Meanwhile, President Obama's own "top kill" is underway, as he tries to prevent political damage with an injection of heavy public relations and administrative moves.

I was one of a clutch of columnists called to the White House Wednesday for a briefing from Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal government's response and oversight of BP. On Thursday, President Obama will hold his first full press conference in an astonishing 10 months. (I admit it: I was one of those who used to complain that he was overexposed.) Much of the pressure is likely to focus on the Gulf of Mexico. Later Wednesday or Thursday, the government will release its own estimate of the amount of oil that has flowed into the gulf. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is preparing to disclose the administration's review of offshore drilling, which only last month Obama enthusiastically endorsed. Expect the administration to be less enthusiastic now. Then, on Friday, Obama will fly to the gulf to review the troops, so to speak, and to show his concern for the devastation that lies ahead in the deep waters and along the shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico.

If the White House officials' aim in putting Allen "out" was to offer reassurance, they partly succeeded—but only partly. Allen, genial son of a Coast Guard officer, is a lifer with 30 years experience in oil spills and a firm grasp of bureaucratic lines of command, the relevant laws, and the technological and political challenges presented by the failure of a supposedly fail-safe device: the blowout preventer that sat atop BP's Deepwater Horizon well. He seemed like a decent guy who cares and who's on top of things. While we were interviewing him, he took calls from his on-scene deputy, and from the head of BP. Allen insisted that he was keeping the pressure on the company, and making sure that there was "unity" and skill in the government's efforts.

But it was also clear, listening to his earnest, jargon-filled bureaucratese, just how overwhelmed and unprepared the government (not to mention BP) was to handle disasters of the kind that we should have known would eventually, inevitably result from drilling wells a mile below the surface of the ocean and tens of miles offshore. New technologically advanced drilling was taking place amid a jumble of outdated and inadequate and loophole-filled laws, and in the context of now-faulty assumptions about the skill and dedication of the private sector. Extraction technology is better than damage-control technology, it turns out; drilling platforms are not reviewed to the same extent that tankers are. The kind of oil spill now spreading across the gulf is unlike anything that anyone has encountered before.

The Deepwater Horizon spill is not a "monolithic spill" like those that have come before, Allen said. It is a "collection of spills"—"an omnidirectional, indeterminate threat." Knowing where it will strike is impossible; deploying enough resources to protect hundreds of miles of coastline impractical. "It's like the Union line at Gettysburg," he said hopefully. (The Union line held.)

Allen, who just retired Tuesday from his Coast Guard command, remains the "National Incident Commander" under the terms of a 1990 federal environmental law that governs this kind of situation. The law and other environmental measures do not adequately regulate offshore rigs, he said. The law relates to cleaning up spills, not preventing them per se; meanwhile, the Interior Department apparently never questioned BP's assumption that the blowout preventer would work, even though it and others like it are now being used at fantastic, difficult-to-operate-in depths.

The 1990 law, passed after the Exxon Valdez accident, puts the burden of spill cleanups on private industry and led to the creation of a group of Coast Guard–licensed companies that specialize in the cleanup work. The government, Allen said, had very little of its own equipment to do the job—and the Navy has only enough for its own internal purposes.

The admiral questioned the wisdom of calling in the Army Corps of Engineers to create new barrier islands (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's pet idea). There is not much more the Navy can do than what it already has done: provide booms to block of the oil from hitting the shoreline.

BP and allied companies are in charge on the seafloor, Allen said, and "there is no way to push them aside." No oil company or country has better technology or more knowledge.

At 12:35 p.m. ET Wednesday, BP President Tony Hayward called Allen, who reported back to us. The government structure, headed by Allen, had given the go-ahead for the "top kill" effort. The president had been briefed. "We're going to push the button in five minutes," Allen said Hayward told him in that phone call.

Let's see if any of this works, on the ocean floor or inside the Beltway.

Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.