White House officials, led by President Obama, made a big public push to talk about the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico Thursday, going into detail about steps the administration is taking to mitigate environmental damage and understand what caused the accident.
The president began an event at the Rose Garden honoring the Teacher of the Year by briefly addressing the disaster. Mr. Obama said he has been receiving frequent briefings from senior administration officials about the spill, including an update last night on the additional breach and another update this morning.
“While BP is ultimately responsible for funding the cost and cleanup operations,” the president said, his administration “will continue to use every single available resource at our disposal including potentially the Department of Defense to address the incident.”
The White House daily briefing was devoted to the subject of the spill, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs joined by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Deputy Commandant for Operations at the US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Sally Brice-O'Hara; Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior David Hayes; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson; Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner; and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco.
Napo: “An Incident of National Significance”
Napolitano announced that the Obama administration would be designating the oil slick to be an “incident is of national significance.”
“What that means,” Napolitano explained, “is that we can now draw down assets from across the country, other coastal areas by way of example, that we will have a centralized communications, because the spill is now crossing different regions.” In addition to the government command center in Robert, Louisiana, the administration is opening a second command center in Mobile, Alabama.
In addition, President Obama said, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that his department will be sending SWAT teams to the Gulf to inspect all deep-water drilling rigs and platforms in
the Gulf of Mexico. Salazar today visited the BP command center in Houston, Texas, where – according to Interior Department deputy secretary David Hayes – he is “reviewing the operations, asking the tough questions,” and “getting an update on the company's progress in closing the leaks from their well, and to ensure that they clean up the spill as quickly as possible.”
Might be Three Months Until Relief Well Built
Hayes acknowledged that it might take up to 90 days to drill down 19,000 feet, block off the leak, and build a relief well to stop the estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day that are estimated to be spilling into the Gulf. Until then, BP is taking other steps, trying to get the rams to close and constructing a cofferdam to lower down to just above the leak to “essentially collect the oil and then pump it up to the top so that you wouldn't have it dispersed, and a much more efficient collection system.”
Salazar, Napolitano, and Jackson will visit the site tomorrow, the president said, “to ensure that BP and the entire US government is doing everything possible not just to respond to this incident but to determine its cause and I’ve been in contact with all the governors of the states that may be affected by this accident.”
Earlier this week Napolitano and Salazar “laid out the next out steps into a thorough investigation into what precipitated this event,” the president said, a joint investigation that has been afforded subpoena power to investigate the disaster.
One Thousand Barrels a Day? Or Five Thousand?
Asked about BP’s original assessment that the accident was causing 1,000 barrels of oil a day to be released into the ocean – an assessment that has since been updated to five times that – Lunchenco defended the company, saying “it’s very difficult under these circumstances to have any precise estimate.”
For the initial calculations, there was “agreement among BP and NOAA scientists that the likely approximate rate of flow was around 1,000 barrels a day,” Lunchenco said. “It quickly became obvious however that there was more oil accumulating at the surface than would be possible at that flow rate. We have since redone those calculations.”
Whether the Pentagon will be involved, as the president suggested may happen, isn’t clear. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that Secretary of Defense Robert gates, the Northern Command, the Navy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and the rest of the Joint Staff are “right now in the process of determining what, if any, help we could provide at the president's direction to help alleviate the problem that is under way down there in the Gulf….And we are right now in the process of assessing what capabilities we might be able to bring to bear that would be helpful. But we have come to no conclusions yet as to what those might be and whether they would be of much assistance to the effort down there.”
Changing Mind About Offshore Oil Drilling?
White House officials were reluctant to say that the spill would impact President Obama’s previous announcement that his mind was open to further offshore oil drilling.
Hayes said that the area of the Gulf in question “is a highly regulated area. We think the fundamental practice is safe. But obviously we're looking very hard at everything.” This particular rig had been subjected to month inspections, “with the last inspection being less than two weeks before the incident.”
“Obviously, what's occurring now will also be taken into consideration as the administration looks to how to advance that plan and what makes sense and what might need to be adjusted,” said Browner. “I think it becomes part of the debate.”
But, said Gibbs, “we don't know what caused what's happening today.” So if Salazar and Hayes “and others came to the president and said, ‘Here's what caused it,’ could that possibly change his viewpoint?” Gibbs asked. “Well, of course. I think our focus right now is, one that — the area, the spill; and two, also, to ultimately determine the cause of it and see the impact that that ultimately may or may not have.”
Asked about the relationship between the US government and BP, Admiral O’Hara referred to “the professionalism of our partner, BP” and then corrected her use of the term “partner.”
“Yeah,” said Gibbs.
“They are not a partner,” said Napolitano.
“Bad choice of words,” said O’Hara, changing her description of BP to “a responsible party.”