OFFSHORE DRILLING:

BP, Cabinet officials defend spill response as debate moves toward future policy

BP's top U.S. executive and Obama administration officials defended their response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday as President Obama visited the Louisiana coast to show his determination to help the affected area.

BP America Inc. President Lamar McKay said his company's response has been "aggressive" and said the explosion that sunk the rig was not caused by BP skimping on safety to save money.

"My belief is that that does not have anything to do with it. I believe we've got a failed piece of equipment. We don't know why it failed yet in this contracted rig," McKay said on ABC's "This Week" yesterday, highlighting that the rig was leased from TransOcean Ltd., a separate company. "I think we are responding very, very aggressively."

A BP well is shooting at least 5,000 barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That figure amounts to more than 200,000 gallons, and the slick has started to wash into the fragile wetlands of Louisiana.

Some, including House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) have questioned BP's preparedness for such a spill. Others have noted that the company's application for permission to drill did not envision the kind of environmental disaster now unfolding. But McKay rejected criticism that BP was unprepared to deal with a spill in deep water. "We had a response planned, filed for the drilling of this well that incorporates various capability around the Gulf Coast," McKay said. "This is a very low likelihood but very high impact ... incident -- and the response is matching that incident."

The Obama administration and news media are very conscious that the region threatened by the spill is the same one devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, where the slow federal response is widely considered to have sapped public confidence in the Bush administration. Obama administration officials sharply rejected the suggestion from Fox News' Chris Wallace that the spill might be "Obama's Katrina."

"I think that is a total mischaracterization," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on "Fox News Sunday." "The key fact of the matter is that this has been all hands on deck, across the federal government, with the states, with BP from the day of this incident."

And Interior Secretary Ken Salazar employed blunt terms to say that the federal government has not been too reliant on BP. On "Fox News Sunday," he twice stated that the federal government has been "stepping on BP's neck" since the rig sank.

"Our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum to carry out the responsibilities that they have," said Salazar, who also stressed that BP is picking up the tab for the cleanup.

Speaking in Venice, La., Obama struck a similar note. "Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak; BP will be paying the bill," Obama said.

Salazar and Napolitano made the rounds of nearly all the political talk shows Sunday to make the administration's case, usually appearing with Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen from Louisiana. They stressed that the federal government has been dealing with the spill aggressively since the search and rescue operation launched immediately after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Eleven crew members are missing and presumed dead, but more than 100 crew members made it to safety.

But the White House and top Cabinet officials have stepped up their visibility since Thursday when the administration deemed the spill an "incident of national significance." What had been a joint press conference each day with a Coast Guard admiral in New Orleans and BP officials shifted, with Cabinet secretaries being put in front of the cameras, the head of the Coast Guard put in charge of the spill, and Obama's schedule changed to include an on-the-ground visit in Louisiana.

Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu also defended the administration's response to the spill, if a little less wholeheartedly. "I believe they understood the seriousness when this blow-out took place," Landrieu said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I know that that communication was made and I know that the federal government has leaned forward since day one, but obviously, it's not enough on any part, not at the federal, the state or BP, and we have all have to do better."

Landrieu said the looming economic disaster from the oil spill shows why the federal government needs to share more of the royalties from drilling in federal waters with nearby states, but she stressed that the spill should not cause policymakers to shy away from more offshore drilling.

"This is not the time to retreat or back up," Landrieu said. "We have got to find out what happened, correct it, and then continue to produce the oil and gas and energy that this country needs to operate."

Before the spill, expansion of offshore drilling and revenue-sharing incentives for states had taken on an air of inevitability in the climate change debate this year. That is now changing. The spill does not appear to have changed the position of any lawmakers, but the momentum is now with opponents of drilling who are now less likely to accept compromise.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been climate bill supporters' best hope for GOP support until he threatened to bolt because of Democrats' immigration push, said offshore drilling should continue to expand. "We've had problems with car design, but you don't stop driving. The Challenger accident was heartbreaking but we went back to space," Graham said Friday during an appearance in Greenville, S.C., the Greenville News reported.

The Obama administration has found itself in the position of defending its stated policy of "expanding" offshore drilling. It is a position that is more often associated with Republicans and is irritating to environmentalists in Obama's political base.

Salazar, whose department oversees Gulf drilling through the Minerals Management Service, acknowledged that the spill could grow greater than the 11 million gallons that leaked into Alaska's Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. He noted that oil could keep flowing into the Gulf for 90 days until a relief well is drilled, and he said the federal government needs to prepare to clean up the damage in an area still traumatized by Hurricane Katrina.

"This is the beginning of a campaign for, for what's going to be a massive restoration of the Gulf Coast," Salazar said.

Napolitano stressed that the federal government had been active since the rig explosion on April 20. She said the federal government "pre-positioned" hundreds of thousands of feet of oil-absorbing boom, had 73 vessels on-site early on and set up multi-agency command centers. She also noted that the situation began as a search-and-rescue operation after a fatal explosion, then evolved into environmental response.

"The Coast Guard was first on the scene with the search and rescue," Napolitano said. "Then two days later the rig actually sank. And then you had some oil coming to the surface, but it was being burned off. And then you had some oil starting to spread. All the while, BP is down there trying to deploy its remote operating vessels, its robots, basically, to try to shut off this oil to fix the riser. So all the time we are saying -- getting independent verification of what was actually bubbling to the surface. And now, of course, we see a large slick and, of course, that evolved over the end of the week."

Reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.

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