A preliminary report by the staff of President Obama’s Oil Spill Commission pulls no punches on the administration’s response to the BP disaster, saying mobilization efforts “seemed to lag” in the early stages and that a “misplaced optimism … may have affected the scale and speed with which national resources were brought to bear.”
That misplaced optimism, the report states, was rooted in a belief that BP was telling the truth when the company initially estimated the size of the leak at 1,000 barrels a day. The 86-day spill was later pegged at 4.4 million barrels — plus another nearly 800,000 barrels that BP recovered — a rate exceeding 50,000 barrels a day.
The commission staff report, posted online Oct. 6, is actually a draft of a “staff working paper” examining decision-making within the Unified Command, which was established in response to the disaster. It is based on a combination of public testimony and “confidential interviews” with people familiar with the response, according to the report (available online at www.oilspillcommission.gov).
The same report also criticizes Gov. Bobby Jindal for grandstanding on the issue in order to pocket local and national political capital; in the words of the conservative Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the report, Jindal ”became an immediate obstacle.” The Journal’s blog dubbed the report “Anatomy of a Political Crisis.”
The report itself — which misidentified Jindal as the on-scene coordinator — was equally blunt, saying of Jindal: “No one else had the authority to speak for the state, so all decisions had to flow through the governor’s office, which slowed decision-making and caused problems in the response efforts. … [B]ased on interviews with Coast Guard and state personnel, the conflicts between federal responders and state government appear to have been most severe in Louisiana.”
Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin released a response denying Jindal attempted to make on-scene decisions or that he interfered with or delayed the federal response in any way. Garret Graves, the governor’s coastal affairs advisor, said in a statement, “There are several errors throughout this report and we called the Commission to inform them of the errors. They said this was still a draft report and they were working to revise and correct it. One of the most obvious errors is that the Governor was never named state on-scene coordinator. Roland Guidry served in that role until he rotated back to Baton Rouge on May 31 and Jerome Zeringue then assumed that position.”
The report’s stark criticism of the Obama Administration’s response to the catastrophe is somewhat surprising in that the President established the commission. It also represents the first administration admission, albeit somewhat indirect, that Democratic consultant and New Orleans resident James Carville was on target when he blasted Obama early on for not responding quickly enough. (See GAMBIT cover story, “Beyond Rogue,” June 28, 2010.) Carville took some heat from the White House after his criticism, but now he appears to have cover from the administration’s own investigation into the BP crisis.
Among the draft report’s comments:
• “For the first ten days of the spill, it appears that a sense of over-optimism affected responders. Responders almost uniformly noted that, while they understood that they were facing a major spill, they believed that BP would get the well under control. At least one high-level Coast Guard official thought that the oil would not come ashore and hesitated to open additional command posts.”
• “Responders viewed the event as an ‘incident’ rather than a ‘campaign,’ which is what it became. … In hindsight, some Coast Guard responders thought that their initial approach was too slow and unfocused.”
• “As the issue of dispersant application became more and more prominent in the media, the decisions to apply both surface and sub-sea dispersants were taken out of hands of the Federal On-Scene Coordinator and the Regional Response Team and given to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. … Responders, who often viewed surface dispersants as a powerful response tool that they needed to deploy, … wondered why that advance work was suddenly being supplanted by a process led by political appointees who had not been involved in prior planning efforts.”
• “Very early in the response, the media and the public began to question whether the federal government or BP was truly directing the response. While all on-scene government officials with whom we have spoken have asserted that the federal government was fully in charge of the response from the outset, the government struggled to control messaging regarding who was directing containment and response efforts.”
• “The arguable overreaction to the public perception of a slow response resulted in resources being thrown at the spill in general, rather than being targeted in an efficient way.”