Cautious Optimism on Gulf Oil Leak

"Cut and cap" shows promise but oil likely to continue to leak through the summer.

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Another week, another effort to contain the oil spill. Fortunately, BP's latest approach, "cut and cap," seems to be working better than anything it has tried so far. Government officials are saying that the cap is now collecting about 15,000 barrels a day.

But expectations are changing, too. Unlike the ill-fated "top kill" mission, the current plan doesn't actually involve plugging the well. Instead, the goal is narrower: to capture a large amount of the spewing oil--but not all of it, as some escapes through the cap over the wellhead. That means some oil could continue leaking throughout the summer, adding to the environmental catastrophe, until BP completes its relief wells to block the flow for good.

Since last Thursday, when Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen announced that BP had successfully cut away pipe from the well using hydraulic shears and, as planned, placed a cap around the top of the well's failed blowout protector, BP has been gradually increasing the amount of oil flowing through the cap. The tighter the fit, the more oil captured. By the end of the week, scientists were still working to determine the fit, but it appears, based on the recent success, that it was decent.

As with past operations, details about "cut and cap" were at first limited and conflicting, with both BP and the federal government wary of saying too much, too soon. Everyone was, and still is, trying to manage expectations, knowing that the story, now some 50 days old, continues to dominate the news cycle.

Chief among them is President Obama, who on Friday made his third trip to the Gulf in the past month and a half. He canceled a trip to Asia, where he was supposed to meet with leaders of Australia and Indonesia, to spend time assessing the environmental impact and the government's response. For many Gulf residents, the situation is already bad; for others, it's deteriorating. An oil slick crept closer to the Florida coast, sending globs of tar onshore, coming within miles of Pensacola, near the Florida-Alabama border. Photos of pelicans trapped in sludge-like oil are proliferating. Perhaps acknowledging the need to do more to show his solidarity with the affected, Obama this time scheduled meetings not just with state and local officials, as he did on his last visit, but also with ordinary residents.

Obama isn't the only chief executive trying to manage expectations. So, too, is Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, who has committed one verbal blunder after another. Talking about the disaster recently, he said, "You know, I'd like my life back," seeming oblivious to the fact that 11 of his workers had lost their lives in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and that many residents fear losing their livelihoods. In response, BP put up an ad apologizing to workers and residents of the Gulf Coast.

Hayward's image may be beyond repair. BP's stock is down more than 30 percent, and details of safety violations are emerging almost daily. But Obama's position is still fluid. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs argued that the president is on top of the situation and that "if jumping up and down and screaming were to fix a hole in the ocean, we would have done that five or six weeks ago." Obama said that he is "furious" about what is happening. But his return to Louisiana shows that, at this point, words are not enough.