May 24th, 2010
02:28 PM ET
13 years ago

WH has authority, but does gov't have know-how to take over spill response?

Washington (CNN) - Legally, President Barack Obama can effectively fire BP and have the federal government take over efforts to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The question is whether that would help the situation.

No one argues that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 gives Obama the authority to take over all efforts to plug the gushing well 5,000 feet beneath the surface.

However, officials of oil giant BP, while acknowledging their failure so far to stop the leak, say no one - even the U.S. government - can match their company's know-how and technology in such a crisis.

"I don't think anyone else could do better than we are," Doug Suttles, the BP chief operating officer, told CNN on Monday. "I know that that's frustrating to hear and our performance, to this point, I wish was better. I wish this was done. But we're doing everything we can. And I don't actually believe anyone could do any better, unfortunately."

Administration officials also have said they lack the technology - such as unmanned underwater submarines that can work at such ocean depths - that has been deployed by BP.

While the military has some deep-sea capability, such as deep-sea submersibles, a senior Pentagon official told CNN that the military has no unique technology to offer regarding offshore oil drilling. The military has undersea imagery technology, but military officials told CNN it would not add any capability to what the private industry is already using.

Fadel Gheit, managing director for oil and gas research at Oppenheimer & Co. investment bank and firm, said the government has the authority, "but we don't have the technology or ability to do it."

"The government is not in the oil business," Gheit said, adding that BP is the industry leader and "if they cannot do it, nobody else can. Period."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made clear Sunday that the federal role in stopping the leak is overseeing BP's efforts rather than taking over.

"The United States has the responsibility for oversight," Salazar told reporters in Houston, Texas. "Right now, the program that we have with respect to stopping the well and the pollution that's emanating from the ocean floor involves a very significant oversight and involvement from the federal agencies. ... That will continue through this week, as we move forward."

Salazar said the government could exert its full authority with regard to dealing with the spilled oil once the leak is stopped.

"With respect to the rest of the responses, including keeping the oil from coming near shore and onshore and dealing with those ecological values, BP, again, is the responsible party and is on the hook for doing everything that needs to happen," Salazar said. "If we find that they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately and we'll move forward to make sure that everything is being done to protect the people of the Gulf Coast, the ecological values of the Gulf Coast, and the
values of the American people."

Since the April 20 explosion and fire destroyed the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, setting off the deep-sea gusher, oil giant BP has led the effort to stop the leak.

Several failed efforts in the ensuing month have raised frustration across the nation as the spilled oil spreads further, coating some Louisiana coastlines and threatening areas to the Florida Keys and perhaps beyond.

Obama is coming under increasing criticism for the inability to stop it, causing his chief spokesman to mount an impassioned defense of administration efforts.

"We have pushed relentlessly for BP to do what is necessary to contain what is leaking, to deal with both the environmental and the economic impacts of what, as the president said today, is unquestionably a disaster," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday.

However, even Obama's critics seem to recognize there are limits to what the government can accomplish.

"They can fire BP and take it over," Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said Sunday on the CBS program "Face the Nation." "But the truth is the federal government probably doesn't have the capacity to do that."

Marcia McNutt, the U.S. Geological Survey director who is assisting in the Gulf oil spill response, said Sunday that initial unrealistic expectations about the possibility of stopping the leak may be heightening the frustration now.

"I think everyone has to understand that the kinds of operations they are doing in the deep sea have never been done before," McNutt said. "And I think it is too bad that expectations were probably raised on schedules that probably were impossible to meet in terms of the kinds of construction that was required in the deep sea to effect these operations; that involved mobilizing equipment, fabricating new devices that had never been deployed at these depths before."

- CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

Filed under: Energy • Obama administration
soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Cheney is Big Oil

    Isn't it interesting we hear zilch, nada from Mr. Cheney? Mr. Halliburton himself, who in typical troll-under-the-bridge fashion, usually can't wait to come out make some neo-con remark about President Obama. What's a matter Dick? Acoustic switch or blowout preventer got your tonque?

    May 24, 2010 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  2. A.B.

    I wonder if the federal government could commission another oil producer to plug the oil leak instead BP? BP obviously does not know how to do that. Prehaps another oil producer along with assistance from military can accomplish what BP cannot. Or maybe task may require the U.S. government to seek international assistance from foriegn oil producers with the oil stoppage technology.

    May 24, 2010 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  3. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    BP CEOs aren't going to give up their big salaries by letting the government takeover the spill, let's get real. BP hasn't fired any of them due to their lack of incompetency.

    May 24, 2010 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  4. Angus McDugan

    BP would use a govt take over of the problem as a way to deflect blame for mishandling the situation. I can hear it now... "We were doing a great job and on the cusp of a good solution then the government took it out of our hands and now you see how badly it has gone since then."

    Also, we have a new branding of this disaster. It is now called the "Obama oil spill."

    May 24, 2010 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  5. A.B.

    I wonder if the federal government could commission another oil producer to plug the oil leak instead BP? BP obviously does not know how to do that. Prehaps another oil producer along with assistance from military can accomplish what BP cannot. Or maybe task may require the U.S. government to seek international assistance from foriegn oil producers with the oil stoppage technology. I cannot believe that no other oil producer has ever done this before and that BP drilled off shore without any safeguard contingencies and that the government allowed it. Offshore drilling has been going on for decades. Surely there must be some oil stopping method or technology or contingency that exists. This is why I am now against drilling offshore period!!

    May 24, 2010 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  6. Robert

    Stop the oil spill by detonating a tactical nuclear bomb at the well site.

    May 24, 2010 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  7. Independant Thinker

    "The government is not in the oil business," Gheit said, adding that BP is the industry leader and "if they cannot do it, nobody else can. Period."

    I agree.

    Evidently, there's not one person on the planet that knows how to deal with this correctly. We don't have a "Department of Oil Spills" in this Country and I don't think we should have.

    If your kids make a make THEM clean it up!

    May 24, 2010 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  8. Dano

    "I don't think anyone else could do better than we are," Doug Suttles, the BP chief operating officer, told CNN on Monday.

    If this is the case then NO more offshore drilling should be allowed because of the danger to the environment and the economies of the states near the rigs. So much for the safe drilling technology that makes an spill nearly impossible. I've read that the spill could have been stopped by a valve but it was deemed to be too expensive. I also read that the spill could be stopped by blowing up and sealing the well but BP doesn't want to lose the investment they've put into it.

    May 24, 2010 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  9. Angus McDugan

    Boycott BP and any energy company that buys oil from BP!!!!!!

    Also, Obama is looking good in the typical governmental reactionary mode. "Look at me. I am doing stuff after the disaster to make it look like I am all over this situation." Actually Mr. Obama, you should have governed and regulated proactively before the event occurred. For example, all energy companies should be expected to test and prov on a frequent basis that they can address predictable catastrophic events for each type of mining/drilling facility they are connected with. This is what a government can do. It's call governing not reacting and talking a good post game. Obama, please start leading.

    May 24, 2010 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  10. Hammerer

    Does Obama know that there has been an oil leak in the Gulf near La.? You know he has been on the campaign tour "Mainstreet Tour" and has been real busy trying to sell the regimen's agenda and may not be aware of the problem.
    Besides Obama is not into "finger pointing", unless he can find a way to point to Bush, so no one is at fault. The budget is overloaded so he can't throw money at it and this is one thing that he does not want to control, what is he supposed to do? Blame the Repubs? If all else fails ole George is good for one more target to blame.

    May 24, 2010 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  11. B in FL

    I've been listening to the pundits this morning about the government's responsibility to stop the oil leak and it really is astonishing. What exactly do they expect the government to do? These are the same people that decry that the federal gov't is too big and needs to stay out of private industry, etc, etc. But whenever there's a situation such as this spill now they're screaming "Where's our government, why aren't they doing more??". Which is it folks, small gov't with no control over private businesses or regulation? I truly believe the administration is doing all they can at this time but it is up to BP and their engineers to stop the leak. THIS IS IN NO WAY THE SAME AS HURRICANE KATRINA. Although this is extremely devestating there are no people screaming from rooftops and holed up in a convention center waiting to be rescued!!

    May 24, 2010 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  12. FM

    This is really annoying. If it is only the BP Company has the know-how and technology and no one else does, why can't they stop the mess they have caused! If you break it, you own it. They own their mess and they must be given a deadline to clear out the mess or face the consequences!

    May 24, 2010 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  13. Hall for Obama

    Is this the big government you do not want controling your country. You want to take back your country or not, make up your mind, you can not have it both way,

    May 24, 2010 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  14. Dale

    I have heard of time-based fines for removing cars and vehicles that fall through the ice into frozen lakes. For every day the car is in the lake, you get fined $100. So you do everything you can to get it out quickly.

    Why not apply a time-based fine to motivate BP? Fine them $100M per day as long as the well isn't capped off... that ought to keep them motivated while keeping the government out of the technical stuff.

    May 24, 2010 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  15. Jon

    There is NO WAY our government could do any better at stopping this disaster than BP. Our government is just a bunch of lawyers who really know nothing about much of anything technical. That's for sure.

    May 24, 2010 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  16. Brenda

    After the explosion-–the Obama Admin waited a week-–before they even acknowledged that it happened.

    This IS Obama's Katrina--and worse.

    This proves how terribly incompetent the Obama Admin is regarding this disaster--as well as any other potential disaster facing our country.

    CNN should do a report on how much money Obama received from BP-as well as all other oil companies.

    "You're doing a heckuva job O-brownie"

    May 24, 2010 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  17. Ken in NC

    NOw is when I wish we had laws of reso=ponsibility like China. The CEO and top VP's at BP Oil would be shakin in their boots right now if we did have them. They would know that hey would be facing long prison sentences or even possible death sentences. Of course knowing it before the spill should have makde them caution everyone not to cut any corners.

    OH well we don't have those laws here so we will just spank their hand and give them millions more to go out and screw up again.

    May 24, 2010 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  18. Dano

    I would bet money that most of the same people who are pointing their finger at President Obama and the US Government for not handling this disaster to their satisfaction are also screaming that the government needs to stay out of their lives and let businesses do as they please. Make up your minds, will ya?

    May 24, 2010 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  19. al in memphis

    First of all, not many (if any) governments have been involved in actually oil drilling. So it not realistic to think that a government would have that type of expertise sitting around in some office.
    Secondly, if the government step in on day one and said we are taking this over, you would have had Republican critics saying this was just one more Obama government take over of private business.

    Just listen at Rand Paul criticize the Obama for the government stern oversight of BP.

    Lastly, the comments from an investment company person reminds me the story about an big construction firms trying to get a crane across the bridge. The crane equipment was just about 2 inches higher than what could pass through. After hours and days of trying to figure things out - a little boy repeatedly tried to suggest to them what to do. Someone finally let the boy speak just to shut him up, and the little boy told them to just let some of the air out of the tires and drive the crane across.

    May 24, 2010 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  20. ATL Guy

    I would object strongly to the government taking over this operation. BP caused this spill; BP should be responsible for cleaning it up. The government and the American people shouldn't have to shoulder the responsibility for cleaning up this mess. If Obama takes it over, it becomes his Katrina because he will have to find the engineering expertise and equipment to stop the spill and clean up the oil. BP has this at their disposal. What should happen after the spill is stopped is the government should bring the full force of its weight to bear on BP. If a private company can't prove it can stop or clean up a spill in remote waters, then they shouldn't be drilling out there. This spill is BPs fault and it should remain there. Republicans want to blame Obama for this out of retribution for what happened to Bush with Katrina. The similarities aren't even there.

    May 24, 2010 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  21. Big George in Big D

    The WH doesn't know how to run anything but how to run it into the ground! I know BP doesn't seem to be doing anything as fast as we all want them to but Nobama's team of no-how people certainly would muck it up worse!

    May 24, 2010 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  22. emmett brown

    How would the Gov. know about deep water oil drilling, BP need to stop playin and figure this out.....The Gov does not have deep water drilling equipment just hanging around.

    May 24, 2010 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  23. digger

    No one in the federal gov. has enough smarts to stop a little water leak in the shower, let alone the oil leak in the gulf.

    May 24, 2010 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  24. A Kickin' Donkey

    The President's opponents criticized his administration for taking corrective action that saved the American automobile industry and returned it to profitability. When he fired the CEO of GM and mandated that Chrysler find a partner, the "knee-jerk reactionary" haters couldn't wait to spew their venom. Now that the "bailout" loans have been paid back, and the US Government's equity in GM is growing in value, they don't have much to say ... do they??

    Now that the country is in trouble again ... as a result of lax regulations and enforcement ushered in by the Bush (Cheney) Administration ... the President's opponents want him to enter the oil business .... nationalize the oil business .... gee, isn't that socialism ...

    What these critics are for is the socialization of losses and the fake capitalism of profiteering.

    May 24, 2010 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  25. Laughing in Florida

    So the GOP and Tea Party, who hate big government or any government interference in business, are now whining and screaming that the government didn't move fast enough against BP. Looks like "Lost" isn't the only place with a sideways world.

    May 24, 2010 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
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