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The Spill, The Scandal and the President

Page 6 of 8

"Estm: 64k - 110k bbls/Day." The equivalent of up to three Exxon Valdez spills gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every week.

Damningly, the whiteboard also documents the disconnect between what the government suspected to be the magnitude of the disaster and the far lower estimates it was feeding to the public. Written below the federal estimate are the words, "300,000 gal/day reported on CNN." Appearing on the network that same day on a video feed from the Gulf, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry insisted that the government had no figure. "We do not have an estimate of the amount of crude emanating from the wellhead," she said.

Later in the video, a voice on speakerphone with a heavy Southern accent reveals that government scientists were concerned from the very beginning about underwater plumes of oil – a reality that NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and BP executives are still seeking to downplay. "They weren't sure how that oil was going to react once it was spilled," the voice says. "Whether it was going to rise, or form layers and start twisting around." The government, in short, knew from the start that surface measurements of the oil slick – on which it would premise its absurdly low estimate of 5,000 barrels a day – were likely to be unreliable.

By that evening, the White House was gearing up for an urgent response. The president convened an emergency meeting in the Oval Office with Adm. Thad Allen, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and top White House deputies Rahm Emanuel, Carol Browner and Larry Summers. Obama forcefully instructed his team that the response to the oil spill should be treated as a "number-one priority."

But then the fog of war set in. The following day, the Coast Guard – relying on assurances from BP – declared that the spill appeared to be limited to oil that was stored aboard the sunken rig. With a worst-case crisis seemingly averted, Obama checked out, heading off for a long weekend in Asheville, North Carolina, where he and the first lady would stop for ribs at a barbecue joint called 12 Bones Smokehouse before checking into the Grove Park Inn, a golf resort and spa. Asked whether the spill would hamper the president's offshore drilling agenda, spokesman Gibbs made light of the disaster. "I don't honestly think it opens up a whole new series of questions," he said. "I doubt this is the first accident that has happened, and I doubt it will be the last."

The next day, April 24th, Landry told reporters that leaks had been discovered in the riser pipe and estimated the flow at 1,000 barrels a day. "This is a very serious spill," she said. Over the next five days, the administration took significant steps to deal with the spill, but the effort fell far short of what was needed to tackle a crisis that BP was already privately estimating could be as catastrophic as 14,000 barrels a day. A Joint Information Center – a strange partnership involving BP, the Coast Guard and MMS – was set up in Louisiana. Senior officials met with BP CEO Tony Hayward to "receive briefings on the company efforts to stop the flow." The Navy opened a base in Florida as a staging area for BP's cleanup work. Salazar ordered inspections for rigs throughout the Gulf and visited BP's command center in Houston. Napolitano began an investigation into the disaster.

The president himself was occupied elsewhere. After returning from his vacation, Obama spent Monday, April 26th palling around with Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, congratulating them on their World Series victory. He later took time to chat with the president of Honduras. When he put in a call to Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, it was to talk about tornadoes that had caused damage in that state, with only a brief mention of the oil spill. On Tuesday the 27th, Obama visited a wind-turbine plant in Iowa. Wednesday the 28th, he toured a biofuels refinery in Missouri and talked up financial reform in Quincy, Illinois. He didn't mention the oil spill or the Gulf.

That evening, administration officials received news that – to judge from their subsequent response – scared the shit out of them. "The following is not public," a confidential NOAA advisory stressed. "Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked, resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought. There is no official change in the volume released but the [Coast Guard] is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day. Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear."

Standing before the cameras, a visibly shaken Landry bumbled through the reading of a press release. Although BP continued to believe its estimate of 1,000 barrels a day, she said, "NOAA experts believe the output could be as much as 5,000 barrels." The remarks established, for the first time, a figure that both BP and the government would stick to long past its sell-by date.

After he was briefed that evening, Obama told his deputies to contact the Pentagon. The following day, Napolitano declared the BP disaster, which was now approaching the size of Puerto Rico, an "Oil Spill of National Significance" – the designation required to draw on regional resources and to appoint an incident commander to coordinate a federal response. It had taken a full week after Deepwater Horizon exploded for the government to become fully engaged – a critical lapse that allowed the crisis to spiral out of control.

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