Environmental Groups Doubt Government Can Fix the Spill

caution sign BP oil spill
caution sign BP oil spill

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's public threat to BP (BP) on Sunday that the federal government might take over the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill made headlines around the world. Too bad it's not a realistic scenario.

The federal government lacks the expertise and the technology to manage the cleanup effort, according to environmental groups. Like it or not, the government can't contain the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history without BP, a fact that Salazar no doubt knew when he 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."

Salazar is certainly not alone in his frustration at the slow pace of the cleanup and containment of the spill that followed the April 20 explosion on the Gulf of Mexico drilling platform, which killed 11 workers and threatens to decimate the economies of the Gulf States. But the former senator runs the risk of angering residents of the affected areas by making promises that he can't keep. Even environmental groups that have been critical of BP don't advocate the federal government's takeover of the cleanup effort.

"There is a whole bunch of things that the federal government can do -- a complete takeover is not one one them," says Gregory Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. "We need to make sure that we do everything to make sure that BP does everything that they are required to do."

Environmental Groups Urge More Federal Oversight

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made statements that were more conciliatory to BP, and even Salazar appeared to be backing down. In a statement, Salazar spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez argued that the secretary was pushing BP "hard" to fulfill its promises to clean up the mess it created. She pointed out that the government has already done quite a bit to try and stop the worst oil spill in U.S. history, including deploying more than 1,000 vessels and 20,000 workers.

"BP and the private sector, with the help of federal scientists, are the ones who must get that problem solved and in an oversight capacity the Administration is making sure that the best solutions available are deployed as quickly and safely as possible," she wrote in an email.

On Thursday, 11 environmental groups including the Audubon Society wrote to President Obama and urged the federal government to exercise "more direct oversight" in the spill area and do its own estimate of the spill size. Many workers hired by BP for the cleanup lack proper safety equipment, the letter noted. BP currently is balking at the demands from the Environmental Protection Agency to use a less-toxic dispersant to break up the oil.

Next Step: A "Kill Shot"

BP has bungled the response to the April 20 oil spill in every way possible. As I wrote in an article on DailyFinance last week, BP CEO Tony Hayward has repeatedly stuck his foot in his mouth, angering stakeholders and doing immeasurable damage to his company's brand. Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles struck a conciliatory tone on the Sunday talk shows, saying that BP understood people's frustration with his company's failure to plug the leak, which at the insistence of U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) is now being shown live on web cam.

But as Elgie Holstein of the Environmental Defense Fund noted, the government has little choice but to rely on BP's promises to try harder.

"This is the war we have, not the war we would like to have," says Holstein, who served as an adviser to the Obama presidential campaign, echoing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's infamous statement about the Iraq War. "Under present circumstances, the expertise that's needed to grapple with the complex of this particular crisis at this depth of water is largely in the hands of the oil industry and that's just the fact. ... I doubt if the government is going to buy a bunch of drilling rigs."

Salazar's message, though, was probably calculated to scare the tar out of the embattled oil company, whose initial estimates of the spill were off by at least a factor of 10. Images from the Gulf of oil-soaked pelicans, dead turtles and tar balls are heartbreaking. BP has lost "decades of public trust" by botching the cleanup and containment, Holstein says.

"This is an industry that understands it will be facing a lot more scrutiny," he says.

On Wednesday, BP is planning to shoot heavy mud and cement into the breach to plug the holes, a maneuver with the ominous-sounding names of "kill shot" or "top kill." BP officials expressed confidence about the plan, but they were similarly confident that they could capture 85% of the oil when they lowered a four-story, 100-ton, concrete-and-steel vault to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico on May 7. "It appears to be going exactly as we hoped," BP spokesman Bill Salvin told the Associated Press at the time. "Still lots of challenges ahead, but this is very good progress." The company later abandoned that plan after crystallized gas clogged the futuristic-looking dome.

As the Associated Press noted, BP remains confident that that the top kill method will work but the "global oil company has more plans in case the latest efforts fails, like several before it."