Philip Maddocks: BP warned to step up cleanup effort or the government will offer even less help
In its most pointed criticism to date of BP’s cleanup effort in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House warned the company to curtail its finger-pointing and step up its effort to plug the leak from a seabed oil well or the government will step in and offer even less help than it has so far.
“We are prepared to bring the full force of government ineffectuality to bear if that’s what it takes to get BP to do the job,” cautioned Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"Our job is basically to keep their boot on our neck and we’re not afraid to use the leverage that gives us," declared Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Salazar, who often wears a Stetson, had earlier stirred the ire of the oil business by saying that unlike under his predecessors in the George W. Bush administration, oil companies would be treated like “princes and not kings of the world.”
President Barack Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, made clear yesterday that the step-on-the-neck image had the White House seal of approval.
"I think that kind of sums up in that Western Colorado defeatist way of how we feel and what we're trying to convey," Gibbs said sternly.
President Obama said the time has come for the government to take charge of the situation by showing itself to be thoroughly inadequate and under equipped, if only to force BP to be far more forthcoming publicly about the conditions on the seafloor and its process for making decisions on stanching the flow of oil into the Gulf.
“This is something we don’t do lightly, but the time has come for inaction on our part,” he said.
When the president spoke in Venice, La., yesterday, he stuck to the basic message regarding the government's role as the "feeble partner."
"Let me be clear: BP is the only one of us with the manpower, the technology power and the money power to clean up this leak,” Mr. Obama said. “If it takes the government doing less to get them to do more, then I am prepared to have us not do it.”
“BP,” the president added, “will be paying the bill because, quite frankly, the government cannot."
And as Salazar, Napolitano and Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen pointed out, the federal government has “plenty of deficient tools in its toolbox” to use on BP if necessary.
“We can start with that name,” said Allen, suggesting the administration could overwhelm BP’s resistance by dramatically reducing its effort to not refer to the company as "British Petroleum," a name the oil concern shed in 2000, when it became, at first BP Amoco, and then later dropped Amoco and started using the "Beyond Petroleum" slogan.
“They may call the shots in the Gulf, but in Washington, where not doing things is more natural, I think we have a distinct advantage,” he said.
Napolitano said the government could also choose not to hire attractive people to the Minerals Management Service for oil industry representatives to sleep with.
“Only BP has the power to stop the government from doing what it is not doing,” she said.
The government’s shots across BP’s bow come as the administration has stepped up its disinvolvement and started working furiously to show that the federal government is not doing everything possible.
“I think we have already shown that we are not afraid to point the finger at the finger pointers — and we’ll keep on doing it if necessary,” said Salazar while pounding his hat on a replica oil well sitting on his desk. “We’ll also naysay the naysayers and complain about the complainers. I’m not sure yet what we will do about the bullies.”
Some lawmakers questioned whether the government could do much less than it is doing, but most expressed cautious optimism that by standing up to BP by stepping down, the government’s more aggressive inaction was sending a clear message to the private sector that business as usual was changing.
“We didn’t put ourselves in this position. Wealthy businesses and their lobbyists did that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take advantage of it,” said one senator.
Said Napolitano, “We need to remind BP — and everyone else — that they will have to answer for our inactions, that there are real consequences for our not being able to do more.”
Philip Maddocks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.