On Thursday, President Obama stood in front of a skeptical Washington press corps -- and a skeptical American public -- and defended his administration's response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, saying, "I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis."
It has been 37 days since the Deepwater's catastrophic explosion, which killed 11 workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening vast underwater ecosystems, shutting down local economies, and infuriating not only residents of the region but the nation as a whole. Obama has been criticized for responding too slowly and not forcefully enough, and for appearing unconcerned about what some have suggested may be the greatest environmental disaster the United States has ever faced.
Reviewing the administration's public statements and press conferences on the subject, the picture that emerges is not necessarily one of willfull neglect, but of a frustrated White House that did not, perhaps, initially grasp the scope of the disaster, and whose hand was forced on an issue it knew very little about. Whether the terms "Deepwater" and "top kill" continue to haunt Obama in the coming months will be determined in no small part by how much longer the oil continues to seep into the sea, and how forcefully he can convince the American public that he is, in fact, in control of a very uncontrollable situation.
Gulf Oil Disaster Timeline:
A geyser of mud, gas and water erupted on the Deepwater Horizon rig, igniting explosions and a firestorm. Eleven workers were missing and presumed dead.
The rig sank, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was questioned about the explosion in a press gaggle aboard Air Force One. Asked, "Has [the president] reached out to anyone in Louisiana over the oil rig explosion?" Gibbs responded, "Let me check on that. I don't believe so . . . I know that the Department of Interior secretary and I think the deputy secretary were headed . . . down there because that falls under the Department of Interior's portfolio."
Search and rescue operations for the workers ceased, and two leaks were discovered. BP estimated 1,000 barrels of oil per day were flowing into the Gulf. Gibbs said: "The Coast Guard has been directing the response to the leaking. That's our foremost priority at this point, doing all that we can to prevent further leaking and to stop any environmental impacts." President Obama tasked Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar with investigating the cause of the accident and proposing new regulations within 30 days.
April 28: Experts acknowledged that stopping the leak could take months. Clean-up crews began controlled burns of the oil. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said, "The president is very closely monitoring the situation . . . People at the highest levels of the administration have been meeting with officials at BP to discuss not just the clean-up there but what happened there."
April 29: It was revealed that the rate of oil flow had been vastly underestimated. Experts now pegged the rate of flow at 5,000 barrels a day. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco responded: "There was [an initial] agreement among BP and NOAA scientists that the likely, approximate rate of flow was around 1,000 barrels a day. It quickly became obvious, however, that there was more oil accumulating at the surface than would be possible at that flow rate . . .The revised upward estimate of 5,000 barrels per day that was announced last night is a reflection of [new] calculations."
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano addressed BP's use of chemical dispersants, saying, "Nearly 100,000 gallons of dispersant have been used today. We will add to those efforts where we deem necessary . . .But . . .our key focus is making sure that people know what is going on, they understand what relief efforts are under way, what the extent of the response is, what we know, what we don't know about this incident, and how we intend to move forward."
Rear Admiral Brice O'Hara added, "We are prepared for the worst case . . . We have professionals who are on call. We have those professionals that are at the scene, hired through the plan that BP was required to maintain." When asked at what point the federal government might take over the situation from BP, O'Hara said, "We are certainly not at that point now."
April 30: Obama placed a moratorium on permits for new offshore drilling sites until the investigation into the BP spill was complete.
May 2: The president made his first trip to the Gulf region. Onboard Air Force One, Press Secretary Gibbs said, "It is a serious situation. I wouldn't characterize it necessarily as a worsening situation, except that it continues to be a very serious situation with a lot of oil leaking into the Gulf." BP announced it would attempt to place a dome over the well to contain the leakage. Ultimately, it did not succeed.
May 3: Gibbs was asked whether the White House was satisfied with BP's response. He responded, "[BP has] the unique equipment for dealing with this at a depth of 5,000 feet under the floor -- under the surface of the ocean. But we are going to continue to ensure that they're doing all that they need to do from the perspective of state, local and federal authorities... We will keep, as Secretary Salazar said, our boot on the throat of BP to ensure that they're doing all that... is necessary, while we do all that is humanly possible to deal with this incident. Absolutely."
When asked who at BP the president had spoken to, Gibbs answered, "I don't believe the president has spoken with anybody at BP . . .Secretary Salazar convened a meeting with the CEOs of the oil companies last week." When asked whether the administration believed it had received "willfully errant" information from BP, Gibbs replied, "I would have to ask somebody at the Department of the Interior or Homeland Security if they felt otherwise." He also noted, "There were tests over the weekend on the application of sub-sea dispersant, which have thus far performed well and they're continuing to test that."
May 4: Reports emerged that BP's lease on the Deepwater rig had been exempted from environmental impact analysis.
May 5: Asked whether the White House believed BP's exemption from environmental impact analysis was a mistake, Gibbs deferred, saying, "That's part of [Secretary Salazar's] investigation. I don't know the answer."
May 6: The White House announced a plan to make federal assistance available to small businesses in the Gulf region affected by the spill.
May 11: Executives from Halliburton, BP and Transocean were questioned about their roles in the accident. Executives were subsequently accused of "finger pointing." Asked about this, Gibbs said, "I would say the president is deeply frustrated that we have not plugged this leak. Secretary [of Energy Steven] Chu is heading to the area to work with the response team to make sure that we have some of the best and brightest minds down there trying to think through next steps for doing so."
Gibbs was then questioned about an underwater video showing the leak in progress that BP officials had said they would release to the public. At this point, they had not. Gibbs replied, "I believe the Coast Guard has asked for BP to make that available to the press. I don't know who in the administration has seen it . . .We've asked [BP to release the video]." When further pressed as to why BP had not complied, Gibbs said, "You'd have to ask that of BP."
Later, when asked whether BP had been as forthcoming as possible, Gibbs responded, "If we have problems with what they're doing, we have communicated and will continue to communicate to them things that have to be done."
Asked about the president's feeling, Gibbs answered, "The president is frustrated with everything -- the president is frustrated with everybody, in the sense that we still have an oil leak. The president wants to see this leak plugged."
Secretary of the Interior Salazar announced plans to split the Minerals Management Service into two agencies, one tasked with handling royalties from oil and gas and the other in charge of licensing and regulation.
President Obama sent Congress a legislative package that included a proposed increase in oil company liability caps and a higher ceiling on the amount of money that could be expended on recovery per incident from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
May 14: The president said, "We are using every available resource to stop the oil from coming ashore. I know BP has committed to pay for the response effort, and we will hold them to their obligation. I have to say, though, I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle during the congressional hearings into this matter. You had executives of BP and Transocean and Halliburton falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else. The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't."
May 17: BP announced success in positioning a secondary pipe at the site of the accident to siphon off part of the oil leak.
May 18: Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton was asked whether the government was frustrated at having BP as a partner in stopping the leak. He replied, "Our view is that we didn't choose any partner for this catastrophe. What we've done is worked with the responsible party to do everything we can to stop oil from leaking from the bottom of the Gulf and to mitigate the environmental disaster that we're seeing in the water right now. We are obviously working with BP because, frankly, they have the equipment that's necessary in order to get down to the bottom of the Gulf to help plug that hole."
May 20: The EPA announced it was directing BP to discontinue the use of the oil dispersant Corexit (650,000 gallons of which had already been released into the Gulf), due to concerns about its toxicity. Gibbs said the government had sent a letter to BP requesting greater transparency on the accident, including a request for BP to publicly post the video feed of the undersea oil leak. BP released the video later that day.
When asked about a BP estimate that more than 5,000 barrels of oil were spilling daily, Gibbs referred to the letter that the administration had sent BP, saying, "That's one of the reasons the letter is going, to find out more information."
May 22: The president appointed a national commission, led by former Sen. Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, to investigate the government's response to the spill.
May 25: The White House announced President Obama would make his second trip to the Gulf region on May 28.
May 26: BP began a "top kill" procedure in an attempt to plug the leak. Its success has not yet been determined.
May 27: Obama ordered a stop to drilling at 33 deep-water Gulf of Mexico rigs for six months, a suspension of exploration off the coast of Alaska, and cancellation of pending lease sales in Virginia and the Gulf. No new deep-water drilling permits will be issued for six months. "My job is to get this fixed," he said. "I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down . . ."
Director of the Minerals Management Service, Elizabeth Birnbaum, announced she was stepping down from her position.
The same day, an independent commission announced an estimated oil flow of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day from the Deepwater site.
May 28: The president was scheduled to return to the Gulf.