Around noon last Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had to excuse himself. He had been sitting in a hearing room on Capitol Hill for more than two hours, testifying about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, telling Congress that BP would launch an operation "within a few hours" to plug the well. Salazar needed to leave. "There are some critical decisions I want to make sure I'm watching," he said, before quickly heading out.
Salazar, like many others in the Obama administration, was scrambling to show that he was on top of the crisis, and last Wednesday was critical (or so it seemed at the time). Around 1 p.m., BP launched its "top kill" operation—an ambitious and much-discussed attempt to plug the well that had been gushing oil by that point for more than a month. BP began injecting a muddy drilling fluid 5,000 feet down into the wellhead, hoping to create enough pressure to stem the release of oil and natural gas.
It was a recognized technique, but one never before attempted at such a depth. By the weekend, the plan had been abandoned as a failure.
It would be hard to overstate the disappointment, not just for BP, the world's No. 2 private-sector oil company after Exxon Mobil, but also for the Gulf Coast and the Obama administration. The spill, according to new government numbers, is now the largest in U.S. history, with the well spewing oil as much as five times faster than BP's initial estimates. Every technical fix attempted by BP has failed or worked incompletely. Oil is washing into marshes in Louisiana, providing gripping images of the disaster's tragic reach, and is now heading toward the Florida coast. And public anger is growing: The story, now roughly six weeks old, continues to dominate the news, and the news is mostly discouraging, full of finger-pointing about who's to blame and who's in charge.
Last Thursday, President Obama took a stab at those questions. "In case you're wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility," he said. "There shouldn't be any confusion here." But there is confusion, and though Obama tried to address it during his first press conference since last summer, it is clear that the White House has had a hard time trying to communicate the extent of its crisis response, thereby fueling the anger that seemed to reach a boiling point last week.
Part of the problem is visual. Despite all the statements from BP and Obama cabinet members about what they are doing, what the public has seen, mainly, is the continued flow of oil. Largely unseen, for example, was the team of government scientists working under Nobel Prize-winning scientist and Energy Secretary Steven Chu at a command center in Houston, where they were advising on the top kill operation.
The White House has also struggled to explain just how technically complicated plugging the leak is. In the past two weeks, there have been calls, including some from Democrats, to push BP out of the way entirely. But the real problem, experts suggest, is not BP, but the environment in which BP is working. "All these things they are doing are fairly exceptional," says John Rogers Smith, a petroleum engineer and associate professor at Louisiana State University. "We can't interact with the machinery. We can't see it. We can't touch it. We are at water depths where there is no possibility at all of any diver intervention, so we are essentially limited to vision, and that's only through cameras."
And as Jeffrey Short, one of the top scientists who investigated the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, noted last week, there is little room for error and therefore a need for caution. Previous efforts to plug the leak posed relatively little risk of worsening the spill, but that wasn't the case with the top kill effort. "This could actually backfire" rupturing the pipe and making the spill bigger, he said last week.
The question of responsibility continues to swirl around many other areas. Last week, a congressional memo offered some of the first details of what may have happened in the hours before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, raising questions about whether BP failed to follow "proper procedures" before the accident. Meanwhile, this week, the Justice Department announced that it was launching a civil and criminal investigation into the incident, staying sufficiently vague so as not to finger any company specifically.