Obama to Revamp Drilling Rules as Calls Grow to Take On BP

President Barack Obama will announce new safety measures for offshore drilling tomorrow as calls increase for him to exert more control over BP Plc’s efforts to stop its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and repair the damage.

After receiving an initial report on the cause of the April 20 explosion at a BP well, Obama will respond with new permitting procedures for oil exploration and tougher inspections to ensure safety and environmental rules are being followed, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified before the announcement.

“We have to revisit how these oil companies are operating and make sure that they’re operating in a safe and effective way,” Obama said last night at a Democratic Party fundraiser in San Francisco.

Obama will travel to Louisiana on May 28 to assess the response to the spill that has reached Louisiana’s shores and threatens Florida and the East Coast, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday. What’s been missing is a sense that Obama has taken charge, according to presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

“Obama has yet to have his ‘bullhorn moment’ on the Gulf catastrophe,” said Brinkley, a professor at Rice University in Houston, evoking the image of President George W. Bush speaking to New York firefighters after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Oil in Marshlands

“The more the images of oil in marshlands and dead birds washing ashore, the angrier the American people are going to get,” Brinkley said in an interview yesterday. “Largely, it’s been directed toward BP. But as the weeks turn into months you can feel, almost on a daily basis, the public’s furor start heading toward the White House.”

A poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found a public critical of the administration as well as BP. It said 26 percent of those polled rated the administration’s response poor and 31 percent called it “only fair.” The poll said 31 percent gave the administration an “excellent” or “good” grade.

“It’s inexplicable,” Louisiana native James Carville, a Democratic consultant who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said yesterday in an interview. “Why do we still not know how much oil has been pumped out? Why did it take us over 30 days to get the pictures? Who’s running this show?”

Diagnostic Tests

To plug the leak, BP has begun diagnostic tests to pave the way for a crucial and risky operation that may be its last chance to plug the leak before August.

The so called “top kill” will be the most complex effort yet to stop the monthlong leak before relief wells can plug the leak from the bottom.

Aboard Air Force One to California yesterday, Obama spoke with Energy Secretary Steven Chu for a briefing on the procedure and what steps might be taken if the attempt fails.

Chu, who won the Nobel Prize for physics, and a team of scientists are in Houston helping BP evaluate diagnostic tests for attempts to plug the leak as well as develop backup plans in case the top kill fails, according to a White House statement.

Top kill involves injecting heavy drilling fluid and cement into the well to stop the flow of oil and gas. If it doesn’t work, the company will consider replacing the damaged riser pipe at the well, an option that will be available by the end of May, the company said in a statement.

On Obama’s Watch

The administration says it’s taking a tough line toward BP and won’t rest until the well is capped and the mess cleaned up. Obama has ordered a bipartisan commission to investigate the spill and take steps to ensure a similar disaster won’t happen again.

“Nobody is more upset than me, because ultimately, like any president, when this happens on your watch, then every day you are thinking, how does this get solved?” Obama said last night at a Democratic fundraising reception in San Francisco.

“We are now having to do a thoroughgoing review to see how it is that oil companies can say that they know how to handle these problems when it turns out actually that they don’t,” Obama said. “And that’s a responsibility of government.”

Administration officials have emphasized both that they are pressing BP to perform and that they are depending on the company because only it has the equipment, expertise and legal responsibility to stop the leak and repair the damage.

‘Push Them Out’

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said the administration intends to “keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum” and that he would “push them out” if company workers didn’t perform effectively.

Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral who is coordinating the federal response, contradicted that, saying that pushing BP aside isn’t practical.

“To push BP out of the way would raise a question: to replace them with what?” Allen said at a White House briefing on May 24. BP is “exhausting every technical means possible” to deal with the leak, he said.

The dependence on BP has raised the ire of Democrats such as Donna Brazile, a political consultant and commentator.

“The Obama administration is following BP’s lead and not pressing them harder on contingency plans that should have already been in place,” she said in an interview. “It’s past time the Obama administration put all hands on deck in helping BP cut off the massive oil spill, contain what is gushing to our shoreline, clean up the mess and compensate those impacted immediately.”

Brazile, who is from New Orleans and was Democrat Al Gore’s campaign manager in the 2000 presidential race, said the commission examining the spill also should look at “how the administration handled this catastrophe.”

‘Disjointed Effort’

Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, standing alongside Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at the May 24 press conference, described the federal government’s response as a “disjointed effort” providing “too little, too late to stop the oil from hitting our coast.”

So far, Obama has relied largely on surrogates, such as Allen, Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.

“It’s unclear who’s in charge, there are six agencies holding press conferences every day,” Walter Isaacson, an author and president of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington, said in an interview.

Criticism ‘Ridiculous’

Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said criticism of the Obama administration’s response to the oil spill is “ridiculous.”

“They don’t drill wells, companies do, oil companies,” Kerry said while speaking to reporters today in Washington. The government can provide expertise and oversight, Kerry said. “I don’t believe the government has the technology” to step in for BP, he said.

Kerry blamed lapses in federal oversight on the government’s longtime “sweetheart relationship” with the oil industry, especially during President George W. Bush’s two terms in office.

Brinkley said the White House probably will need to recalibrate its response.

“If the well is not capped this week, the president has to get into a new kind of leadership zone, because we’re looking at maybe two to three months of that oil gushing out,” Brinkley said. “A truly national catastrophe and not an industrial accident.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Nicholas Johnston in Washington at njohnston3@bloomberg.net; Kim Chipman in Washington at kchipman@bloomberg.net.

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