WASHINGTON — To hear Obama administration officials tell it, they’ve been fully engaged on the Gulf Coast oil spill since Day One, bringing every resource to bear and able to ensure without question that taxpayers will be protected.
Take President Barack Obama’s repeated claims that BP will be responsible for all the costs associated with the devastating spill that began after an oil rig operated by the company exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and later sinking.
“Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak; BP will be paying the bill,” Obama said while touring the area Sunday.
While it’s true that the federal Oil Pollution Act, enacted in 1990 in response to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, makes BP responsible for cleanup costs, the law caps the company’s liability for economic damages — such as lost wages, shortened fishing seasons or lagging tourism — at $75 million, a pittance compared to potential losses.
Administration officials insist BP will be held responsible anyway, noting that if the company is found negligent or criminally liable, the cap disappears. Claims also can potentially be made under other state or federal laws, officials said.
Yet the liability cap is problematic enough that a trio of Democratic senators introduced legislation Monday raising it to $10 billion, and the administration quickly announced its support. Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida voiced concerns that unless the cap is raised, BP would avoid paying for the mess and leave small businesses, local government and fishermen with the bill.
“They’re not going to want to pay any more than what the law says they have to,” Nelson said.
That’s not quite the seemingly ironclad guarantee heard from the president.
Then there’s the administration’s rhetoric about anticipating the magnitude of the crisis and bringing all resources to bear on Day One.
“We had (Defense Department) resources there from Day One. This was a situation that was treated as a possible catastrophic failure from, from Day One,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
That sense of urgency was not so apparent when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was questioned about the incident April 23, three days after it occurred. At the time he seemed to dismiss its severity and indicated it wouldn’t affect Obama’s plans to open up new areas of the coast to offshore drilling.
“I don’t honestly think it opens up a whole new series of questions, because, you know, in all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last,” Gibbs said.
A week later, Obama was announcing plans for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to review whether new technologies were needed to safeguard against oil spills from deep-water drilling rigs. The president said no new offshore oil drilling leases would be issued without any such safeguards.
And Napolitano’s comments over the weekend about the Pentagon’s Day One role seemed a change from last Thursday, when she seemed to indicate the Defense Department was not yet involved in responding to the spill: “If and when they have something to add, we’ll certainly make that known,” she said.
A Homeland Security spokesman, Sean Smith, said Napolitano’s more recent comments referred to the Navy’s help with the Coast Guard’s search and rescue mission early on, and that when she was discussing the Defense Department last Thursday she was alluding to any additional help they could bring to bear.
The administration’s evolving rhetoric reflects not only the increasing seriousness of the spill itself, but its determination to be seen as responsive from the get-go and to squelch comparisons to the Bush administration’s slow-footed response to Hurricane Katrina.
It’s only natural that administration officials would adjust their response as the spill worsened and its seriousness became evident. But they invite judgment when claiming they responded at 100 percent starting Day One to an incident whose magnitude was not yet apparent, or when black-and-white assertions about taxpayer protections turn out to be tinged with gray.