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Will Obama wind up owning the Gulf oil spill?

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on June 1, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
June 1, 2010 5:45 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

The gusher of petroleum at BP’s wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico has already won the trophy for the worst oil spill in the country’s history. But it may just be getting warmed up.

Now that “top kill” – BP’s last-ditch attempt to turn off the spigot – has failed, prospects for a fix anytime soon look dim. The company hopes to begin capturing the rising oil this week by lowering a containment dome over the ruptured pipeline, but it’s hard to put much faith in the effort after everything else has failed.

Relief wells, which should reach the shaft by August, are supposed to be the surefire solution. Let’s hope. In the meantime, the catastrophic blowout threatens to turn the Gulf of Mexico into another Black Sea.

Between now and then, we’ll witness an unprecedented political science experiment.

Few presidents have faced a natural disaster of greater magnitude and duration. The Dust Bowl comes to mind. Hurricane Katrina and some major floods took far more lives, but they didn’t go on fouling the environment and destroying livelihoods month after dismal month.

Obama is in a no win situation. For a month, he looked too much like he was deferring to BP on the spill response – resulting in a sharp drop in his public approval ratings. Now he’s forcefully insisting that he is fully in charge. But that assertion of presidential leadership has its own risks: He may wind up with political ownership of a bleeding wound a mile under the sea.

The fact is, nobody’s in charge of this thing. BP – not the federal government – has the expertise in operating on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and everything BP has done has failed.

There’s no oil spill SWAT team in the Department of Interior waiting for the call to parachute in and save the day. Right now, the Obama administration and everyone else is at the mercy of a pocket of high-pressure petroleum spewing gas and oil from a wellhead more than eight times as deep as the Space Needle is tall.

Like nearly everyone else, the administration has been busy pointing fingers. As Obama has emphasized, BP is indeed responsible for the catastrophe. So, too, may be the contractors that played a part in the failed closing of the well. Heavy responsibility falls on the Minerals Management Service, which has a well-documented history of playing footsies with the oil companies it was supposedly regulating.

But blame won’t plug a pipeline that just goes on dumping thousands of barrels of petroleum into the deep sea. The people at BP are wishing they had a containment dome for the company’s financial ­– and perhaps criminal – liability. Obama needs a dome of his own, to contain the political spill.

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