The latest attempt by BP to shut down its apocalyptic oil gusher — the “top kill” maneuver — has failed, despite BP CEO Tony Hayward’s assurance yesterday that it had a 70 percent chance of success. There’s no question that the federal government, if the president so decides, can take over the challenge of mitigating the damage of BP’s oil to the shores and waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But can President Obama take charge of stopping the wellhead gusher from the foreign oil giant? The administration argues it’s keeping BP in charge of the attempts to shut down the blown out well because government doesn’t have the equipment or expertise to solve this engineering problem without BP:
Adm. Thad Allen, Incident Commander: “To push BP out of the way, it would raise the question, to replace them with what?” [White House briefing, 5/24/10]
David Axelrod, White House adviser: “They’ve got equipment that our government doesn’t have.” [Fox News, 5/24/10]
Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior: “This administration has done everything we can possibly do to make sure that we push BP to stop the spill and to contain the impact. We have also been very clear that there are areas where BP and the private sector are the ones who must continue to lead the efforts with government oversight, such as the deployment of private sector technology 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to kill the well.” [White House briefing, 5/24/10]
The administration has been keeping an ecological criminal in charge of the crime scene during a national crisis. Seventeen nations have offered assistance — but “the final decision is up to BP” to accept it, according to the State Department — and only Canada, Mexico and Norway have been allowed to help so far. The law — Title 33, Section 1321 — mandates that President Obama “shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge,” using any means necessary. There are not any resources — people or equipment — that Obama doesn’t have the authority to seize and put into service.
It’s certainly fair to expect that private sector resources may be needed for this disaster, but BP’s only unique qualification for the disaster response is that it is the perpetrator. Although BP is by default a party responsible for implementing the cleanup plan, it is by no means the only possibility. The rig was operated by Transocean; the cementing done by Halliburton; the blowout preventer built by Cameron. Other companies involved in ultra-deepwater drilling include engineering giant Schlumberger, Norway’s nationalized oil company Statoil, Shell, and Chevron.
If the Navy can’t direct the undersea mission after it’s given authority over any needed private resources, it calls into question why we entrust it to operate aircraft carriers and nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered submarines.
Obama does not need to keep working with BP management — like CEO Tony “Very Very Modest” Hayward, BP America president Lamar “No Certainty” McKay, BP Chairman Carl-Henric “Big And Important” Svanberg, or COO Doug “Very Optimistic” Suttles — who have repeatedly laughed off the scale of this catastrophe. If federal officials believe that BP engineers should continue to work on the problem, the President has the authority to have those people working directly for the federal government.
In fact, the president has the authority to nationalize BP America and seize all of its assets, rendering the question of reliance on BP moot. If Obama does not believe that the Clean Water Act’s “spill of national significance” provisions give him sufficient authority, he can rightly declare a national emergency, or demand that Congress deliver him necessary legislation. Or there’s an easier option: BP is on the hook for all costs of this apocalyptic disaster. Obama can simply buy BP America and send the bill to its foreign parent company.
Cross-posted on the Wonk Room.