Who's In Charge of Gulf Oil Spill Cleanup—Obama or BP?

Polls, media show distaste for how spill is being handled

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Most Americans (51 percent) disapprove of how President Obama is handling the Gulf oil spill, according to a just-released CNN poll, but that’s nothing compared to how they feel British Petroleum has done (76 percent disapproval).

You have to wonder, though, whether the president would fare as well if the poll was taken now, after a weekend of media attacks on the administration for not taking a stronger leadership role in the Gulf spill. The critical drumbeat, led by Democratic strategist James Carville, challenged Obama for letting BP dictate clean-up efforts. Interior Sec. Ken Salazar promised to keep the government’s "boot on the neck" of BP, but apparently BP wasn’t cowed, because it defied EPA’s demand that it use a less-toxic form of chemical dispersant. Today, EPA ordered BP to cut back on using the dispersants. Will BP ignore that order as well?

The EPA is launching an investigation into BP’s refusal to follow last week’s directive to use less-toxic dispersants.>

Today, as BP’s CEO walked an oil-soaked Gulf coast beach—and promised to "clean up every drop of oil," the Coast Guard’s admiral in charge said he believed the government should let BP stay in charge. The government isn’t qualified to clean this spill up, he emphasized.>

And then there’s the matter of the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that Salazar is drastically reorganizing because of its too-cozy relationship with the oil industry. The New Yorker skewers the administration on two critical points:

Obama inherited an Interior Department that he knew to be plagued by corruption, but he allowed the department’s particularly disreputable Minerals Management Service to party on. Last spring, in keeping with its usual custom, the M.M.S. granted BP all sorts of exemptions from environmental regulations. Ironically, one of these exemptions allowed the company to drill the Deepwater Horizon well without adhering to the standards set by NEPA. For reasons that are hard to explain, the Administration still can’t, or won’t, say exactly how much oil is leaking.

And, the New York Times reveals that, despite a moratorium on new drilling permits, "since the April 20 explosion on the rig, federal regulators have granted at least 19 environmental waivers for gulf drilling projects and at least 17 drilling permits, most of which were for types of work like that on the Deepwater Horizon shortly before it exploded, pouring a ceaseless current of oil into the Gulf of Mexico."

Meanwhile, Shell Oil continues to ready its oil exploration fleet for a go at offshore drilling in America’s Arctic Ocean this summer. Armed with a permit from the same MMS that let BP drill in extreme conditions in the Gulf without adequate planning, Shell is likewise heading into a risky situation with little assurance that it can handle a blowout scenario. As the latest congressional hearings into the Gulf spill started, a congressman from New York demanded that Shell postpone its Arctic venture.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.