BP In Charge: Why Obama Can't Take Over the Gulf Spill Cleanup

Last Updated May 26, 2010 6:16 PM EDT

BP has been vilified for its response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Just about every step the company has made has been questioned -- reasonably so -- from its choice of chemical dispersants and past safety record to its strongman approach aimed at keeping reporters off contaminated beaches and its attempt to get fisherman to sign waivers to release BP of liability.

With every misstep, snafu and outright failure, more environmentalists, lawmakers and even BNET readers have asked, 'Why is BP still in charge?' Once the public got a first-hand look via the BP live video feed of the spill, the question became even more persistent. And it's come up again as BP makes another attempt -- this time trying a "top kill" -- to plug its gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico. If BP fails, should Obama take over?

Unfortunately, it's not so much a question of should as a question of could. And it's not likely. Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard and the U.S. official leading the response, confirmed the government wouldn't take a larger role in efforts to stop the spill. Why not? Allen cut to the chase with reporters this week.

To push BP out of the way would raise the question, replace them with what?

Touché, Adm. Allen. Touché.

The federal government may not have equipment or expertise to plug the well, but it certainly has the ability and authority to keep BP in line. The federal government did give BP the final OK to proceed with its "top kill" procedure. And various government agencies have been involved with monitoring BP from the beginning.

Even there, the feds have had mixed success. They've done some things well and appears to be trying to fix some past errors, including taking measurements of the spill. The government's best bet at gaining back control will come down to how well it cleans up its own house.

Here are a few areas that could use some spit-shining:

EPA vs. BP The EPA, for example, still can't seem to get BP to stop using a chemical dispersant that the agency had initially approved, but later reversed. State and local officials, especially Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have complained bitterly about the failure of the Obama administration to get the necessary supplies, like booms, to protect the coastline.

Cozy relationships The cozy relationship between the oil industry and the Mineral Management Service, the government agency in charge of both safety enforcement and collecting oil and gas royalties, continues to be a problem. Some folks may remember the MMS sex and drugs scandal in the agency's Denver office that came to light in 2008. A new report released this week discovered that between 2000 and 2008, MMS employees at its Lake Charles, Louisiana office accepted football tickets, lunches and other gifts from the oil companies they were in charge of policing. Now the Interior Department's inspector general is launching an investigation into the actions of MMS officials regarding the approval and inspection of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded and subsequently led to the oil spill.

The connection between federal officials and the oil industry runs deep and can be found in some unlikely areas. Even when there's no evidence of malfeasance, the revolving door between the feds and Big Oil raises questions. Energy Secretary Steven Chu founded the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley, which was funded by... a $500 million grant from BP. Steven Koonin, BP's chief scientist, made the decision to issue the grant to Chu's institute, a Mother Jones reporter noted Wednesday. Where's Steven Koonin now? Chu appointed him DOE undersecretary last year.

Not just the feds The BP in charge problem isn't just the failure of the federal government. Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland gives a brilliant first-hand and disturbing account of BP's rule in the region. Her experience trying to get information on or access to the Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge reveals a local sheriff's office controlled by BP officials.

Photo of President Obama in the Gulf from the White House Related: