Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Obama Press Conference: 'Daddy, Did You Plug The Leak?'

The only news of substance coming out of President Obama's news conference Thursday on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was the announcement the government is shutting down exploratory drilling -- as was the case with Deepwater Horizons -- for all 33 deep-water rigs in the Gulf.

The rest of the one-hour presser was an attempt by Obama to claim the government is doing the best it can, has been on the job since Day One, April 20, and that his daughter asked him this morning while he was shaving when he will plug the leak.

Of the questions asked, the one raising the most eyebrows was Obama's failure to realize because of his busy morning schedule that Elizabeth Birnbaum, director of the beleaguered Mineral Management Service, submitted her letter of resignation to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Included in the president's morning schedule was honoring the Duke basketball team which won the NCAA national championship.

Obama refused to say he "regretted" his decision earlier this year announcing new exploratory and drilling leases off the nation's coastline. Whatever he promised then was put on hold Thursday.

He began the press conference by announcing the shutdown of the 33 deep-water exploratory rigs but allowing those in operation to remain pumping oil. All other plans are on hold until at least December when his panel headed by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham completes its review and recommends fixes that resulted in the largest oil spill disaster in the nation's history, tripling the 11 million gallons spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska.

Included in that review are plans delaying Shell Oil Co.from exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska where they planned to begin this summer. Other new drilling plans already subject to moratoriums will be extended another six months. Lease sales off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia planned for August were canceled.

Obama tried to explain that despite the 1990 law granting oil companies the task of cleaning up its spills, the federal government has the authority to intercede and direct company contractors into unprotected areas where the spill may approach. He said the government does not have the capability of capping the leak at its source.

Hours before the press conference, Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard command, said a "top fill" operation by engineers seemed to be working and was confident by Friday the leak would be capped permanently.

The president conceded the government does not have all the answers, including the question posed by MSNBC's Chuck Todd why no tankers have been brought in to "suck up" the oil slick on the surface of Gulf waters.

He admitted responsibility for not pushing more urgently a purge of the Mineral Management Services agency which has been found negligent in Coast Guard, congressional and Inspector General investigations in regulating safety procedures of the drilling operations.

In stead, the agency gave blanket approvals, taking the word of BP tests in the Deepwater Horizons case, and lived for decades in a culture of "cozy relationships" with the industry. Obama at the press conference said the reason MMS waived environmental review for on-site drilling sites was a Congressional mandatory time period of 30 days which was impossible to perform

While Obama spoke in the East Room of the White House in Washington, BP executives in Louisiana finally adjusted their earlier estimates of the extent of the oil spill leak. They revised their earlier estimate from 5,000 bpd to at least 15,000 bpd which some environmental advocates had estimated as long as three weeks ago.

The amount is critical because it determines the actual impact of ecological and economic damage along the Gulf coastline. Already, 150,000 square miles of commercial fisheries have been closed by the Coast Guard. That includes sportsfishing and shrimp and oyster harvesting, according to CNN.

If the leak is capped, the next major threat will be hurricane season with 9 major category 3 or greater hurricanes forecast for the Gulf by the National Weather Service in Florida which monitors those events. The season starts next month.



For this report, I focused on the facts more than the obvious political fallout. I agree with Obama's answer to one such question at the presser. Asked if he thought it was fair to judge his response as "Obama's Katrina," the wily president said that's for the media to decide. Did he win back the heart of that ragin' Cajun Democratic strategist James Carville, telling CNN Wednesday that "the political stupidity of this is just unbelievable"? There's no escaping the fact that the disaster occurred on Obama's watch and he has to live with it the same as George W. Bush could never wiggle out of 9/11.

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