Obama defends his team’s handling of gulf oil spill


President Obama insisted Thursday that his administration was “in charge” of the effort to stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, batting away suggestions that the federal response has been lackluster and that BP executives are calling all the shots.

Obama underscored his authority, saying his team specifically ordered BP to drill two holes as part of its new effort to plug the hole, instead of the single one executives proposed.

“BP is operating at our direction,” Obama said. “Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance.” He added that if the Coast Guard commander orders BP to do something, “they are legally bound to do it.”

He also announced new restrictions on offshore drilling and a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling, declaring that he is “angry and frustrated” about the spill as it stretches into a fifth week.

Still, Obama refused to compare the current emergency to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the region five years ago. Many Gulf Coast residents remain angry about the George W. Bush administration’s efforts in the wake of the 2005 hurricane.

But Obama was clearly feeling the heat of that comparison as he summoned reporters for the first full-fledged White House news conference in almost a year.

In the news conference, he did something President Bush failed to do at the height of post-Katrina chaos when he acknowledged areas in which his administration’s efforts fell short.

Obama said administration officials could have pushed earlier for better information from BP about the spill size, which may be several times larger than BP originally reported, and also could have moved faster to end problems at the regulatory agency that oversees offshore drilling.

Obama blamed practices of the previous administration for the poor regulation, citing a “cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship” between oil companies and regulators.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar instituted changes in the agency after taking over, the president said, but the “culture had not fully changed” at the agency’s Minerals Management Service by the time of the spill.

The Interior Department’s inspector general recently found that inspectors from the minerals service admitted accepting meals, trips and football tickets from the companies they were responsible for overseeing, and that they may have falsified safety reports.

Minerals service chief Elizabeth Birnbaum resigned from her position Thursday, a move the president declined to call a dismissal. But he did say that he wants the regulatory agency functioning at “the highest level,” and that he demands staffers who are “operating at the highest level and aren’t making excuses when things break down, but are intent on fixing them.”

Some Republicans argued the president is seeking to deflect blame. “Instead of taking responsibility for his own misplaced priorities and slow response to this catastrophe, President Obama continued to blame President George W. Bush,” said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “This finger-pointing follows a deliberate pattern by the White House to deny responsibility for anything that takes place on President Obama’s watch.”

In a series of decisions finalized Thursday, administration officials said they would suspend the planned exploration of two locations off Alaska and cancel pending lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off Virginia.

They’ll keep in place an existing moratorium on deep-water wells and suspend issuing new permits for them for at least six months while a special commission examines the causes of the oil spill.

They’ve ordered that current deep-water drilling operations — those at a depth of 1,000 feet or greater — be halted at the first possible safe point and that rigs be secured.

Officials also are considering suspending drilling in water as shallow as 500 feet.

“Depending on what the commission finds, they’ll make a decision to continue it or allow stuff to resume if certain safety requirements are met,” said an Interior Department official.

Some environmental experts questioned whether the steps announced by the Obama administration were sufficient.

Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said after the news conference that Salazar deserved blame for the ineptitude of federal oil regulators.

“Will Secretary Salazar finally take full responsibility for the lawless culture that pervades oil drilling regulation at the Department of the Interior?” Snape said.

Obama asserted that his team was on top of things. He said that perceptions otherwise are the result of information filtered through what he called “the prism of politics.”

“The problem isn’t that BP is off running around wherever it wants and nobody’s minding the store,” Obama said. “Our teams are authorized to direct BP, in the same way that they’d be authorized to direct those teams if they were technically being paid by the government.”

And he promised to hold BP responsible for “every dime” of damage to the region.

Whether he ponders the memory of Katrina or not, Obama said the gulf is the first thing on his mind in the morning and the last thing as he goes to bed, and that even his young daughters ask him about it.

“When I woke up this morning and I’m shaving,” he said, “Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, ‘Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?’”

“I think everybody understands that, when we are fouling the Earth like this,” he said, “it has concrete implications not just for this generation but for future generations.”