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Obama on Gulf gusher: Feds in charge since day one (5/28)

May 28, 2010
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The President of the United States (POTUS) Barack Obama held a contentious press conference yesterday in the East Room of the White House on the Gulf Oil Spill. Here are highlights:

POTUS: “The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort. As far as I’m concerned, BP is responsible for this horrific disaster, and we will hold them fully accountable on behalf of the United States as well as the people and communities victimized by this tragedy.”

POTUS: But make no mistake: BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance.

POTUS: The oil industry’s cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship with government regulators meant little or no regulation at all. When (Interior) Secretary Salazar took office, he found a Minerals and Management Service that had been plagued by corruption for years – this was the agency charged with not only providing permits, but also enforcing laws governing oil drilling. And the corruption was underscored by a recent Inspector General’s report that covered activity which occurred prior to 2007 -- a report that can only be described as appalling. For years, there has been a scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them. That’s why we’ve decided to separate the people who permit the drilling from those who regulate and ensure the safety of the drilling.

POTUS: What’s also been made clear from this disaster is that for years the oil and gas industry has leveraged such power that they have effectively been allowed to regulate themselves. One example: Under current law, the Interior Department has only 30 days to review an exploration plan submitted by an oil company. That leaves no time for the appropriate environmental review. They result is, they are continually waived. And this is just one example of a law that was tailored by the industry to serve their needs instead of the public’s. So Congress needs to address these issues as soon as possible, and my administration will work with them to do so.

Question: Why not ask BP to simply step aside on the onshore stuff, make it an entirely government thing? Obviously BP pays for it, but why not ask them to just completely step aside on that front?

POTUS: The Coast Guard’s job is to approve and authorize whatever BP is doing. Now, what Admiral Thad Allen ( incdient commander) said today, and the reason he’s down there today, is that if BP’s contractors are not moving as nimbly and as effectively as they need to be, then it is already the power of the federal government to redirect those resources. I guess the point being that the Coast Guard and our military are potentially already in charge as long as we’ve got good information and we are making the right decisions.

And if there are mistakes that are being made right now, we’ve got the power to correct those decisions. We don’t have to necessarily reconfigure the setup down there. What we do have to make sure of is, is that on each and every one of the decisions that are being made about what beaches to protect, what’s going to happen with these marshes, if we build a barrier island, how is this going to have an impact on the ecology of the area over the long term -- in each of those decisions, we’ve got to get it right.

Question: You understand the credibility of BP seems to be so bad -- that there’s almost no trust that they’re getting…

THE PRESIDENT: Look, this is a big mess coming to shore and even if we’ve got a perfect organizational structure, spots are going to be missed, oil is going to go to places that maybe somebody think it could have been prevented from going. There is going to be damage that is heartbreaking to see. People’s livelihoods are going to be affected in painful ways. The best thing for us to do is to make sure that every decision about how we’re allocating the resources that we’ve got is being made based on the best expert advice that’s available.

The problem I don’t think is that BP is off running around doing whatever it wants and nobody is minding the store. I want everybody to understand today that our teams are authorized to direct BP in the same way that they’d be authorized to direct those same teams if they were technically being paid by the federal government. In either circumstance, we’ve got the authority that we need. We just got to make sure that we’re exercising it effectively.

Question Here we are 39, 40 days later, you’re still having to rush more equipment, more boom. Why is it taking so long? And did you really act from day one for a worst-case scenario?

POTUS: I think on a whole bunch of fronts, you had a complacency when it came to what happens in the worst-case scenario.

I'll give you another example, because this is something that some of you have written about -- the question of how is it that oil companies kept on getting environmental waivers in getting their permits approved. Well, it turns out that the way the process works, first of all, there is a thorough environmental review as to whether a certain portion of the Gulf should be leased or not. That’s a thorough-going environmental evaluation. Then the overall lease is broken up into segments for individual leases, and again there’s an environmental review that’s done.

But when it comes to a specific company with its exploration plan in that one particular area -- they’re going to drill right here in this spot -- Congress mandated that only 30 days could be allocated before a yes or no answer was given. That was by law. So MMS’s hands were tied. And as a consequence, what became the habit, predating my administration, was you just automatically gave the environmental waiver, because you couldn’t complete an environmental study in 30 days.

So what you’ve got is a whole bunch of aspects to how oversight was exercised in deepwater drilling that were very problematic.

QuestionElizabeth Birnbaum (head of the Minerals Management Service), resigned today. Did she resign? Was she fired? Was she forced out? And if so, why?

POTUS: Salazar came in and started cleaning house, but the culture had not fully changed in MMS. And absolutely I take responsibility for that. There wasn’t sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place.

There’s no evidence that some of the corrupt practices that had taken place earlier took place under the current administration’s watch. But a culture in which oil companies were able to get what they wanted without sufficient oversight and regulation -- that was a real problem. Some of it was constraints of the law, as I just mentioned, but we should have busted through those constraints.

Now, with respect to Ms. Birnbaum, I found out about her resignation today. Ken Salazar has been in testimony throughout the day, so I don’t know the circumstances in which this occurred. I can tell you what I’ve said to Ken Salazar, which is that we have to make sure, if we are going forward with domestic oil production, that the federal agency charged with overseeing its safety and security is operating at the highest level. And I want people in there who are operating at the highest level and aren’t making excuses when things break down, but are intent on fixing them. And I have confidence that Ken Salazar can do that.

QuestionWe’re learning today that the oil has been gushing as much as five times the initial estimates. What does that tell you and the American people about the extent to which BP can be trusted on any of the information that it’s providing, whether the events leading up to the spill, any of their information?

POTUS: I think it is a legitimate concern to question whether BP’s interests in being fully forthcoming about the extent of the damage is aligned with the public interest. I mean, their interests may be to minimize the damage, and to the extent that they have better information than anybody else, to not be fully forthcoming. So my attitude is we have to verify whatever it is they say about the damage.

This is an area, by the way, where I do think our efforts fell short. I do believe that when the initial estimates came that there were -- it was 5,000 barrels spilling into the ocean per day, that was based on satellite imagery and satellite data that would give a rough calculation. At that point, BP already had a camera down there, but wasn’t fully forthcoming in terms of what did those pictures look like. And when you set it up in time-lapse photography, experts could then make a more accurate determination. The administration pushed them to release it, but they should have pushed them sooner. I mean, I think that it took too long for us to stand up our flow-tracking group that has now made these more accurate ranges of calculation.

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