May 29, 2010

"Top Kill" Fails Obama's Hopes

It may have been one of his most trying moments as president. Barack Obama traveled the Gulf coast on Friday to survey the damage of BP’s oil slick, reminding its human and animal inhabitants, “I am the president. The buck stops with me.”

Forced onto the defensive from the moment of the explosion, the spill has been dubbed Obama’s 9/11 and Katrina. This - not Afghanistan, Palestine, or North Korea - is all of a sudden Obama’s big political test, his pivotal crisis. One that has allowed no rest.

Obama claims he's getting less sleep because of the spill, swamped as he is with updates.

But of every exhausting day and hour, few are likely to top the agonizing suspense from last night to this afternoon. He can travel the entire Gulf, order thousands to clean up areas, deploy military equipment, and levy federal punishment against BP. Yet Obama could only stand helplessly on the shore and hope the “top kill” would put his nightmare out of misery.

It did not.

“After three full days, we have been unable to stop the flow from the well, so we now believe it is time to move on to another option,” said BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles late Saturday, cautioning that a new effort will be “a very complex operation.”

“This scares everybody — the fact that we cannot make this well stop flowing,” Suttles acknowledged at a joint news conference with government officials in Robert, La.

Stick Obama at the top of the list: "They had hoped that the top kill approach attempted this week would halt the flow of oil and gas currently escaping from the seafloor. But while we initially received optimistic reports about the procedure, it is now clear that it has not worked."

What’s scary though isn’t that BP cannot stop the oil flow, but that it lacked proven emergency measures and drilled anyway. The entire operation was left to chance; even if most wells function properly, one explosion is obviously all it takes to wreck an ecosystem.

Over 29 million gallons have spilled into the gulf since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, compared with 11 million gallons spilled by the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989. With the end of the leak nowhere in sight (BP says August), total gallons in the Gulf could eclipse 50 million.

"Many of the things we're trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 feet,” admits Suttles.

So what are you doing down there?

Most of the spill isn’t Obama’s fault. Where he could have done better, as he admits, is regulation, and the contradiction between swift emergency and lax reform remains unresolved . At the minimum, high-risk drilling needed to be frozen until the proper safety precautions were in place. But Obama's political position doomed his response. Now he’s paying the price.

The parallels between the Gulf and Afghanistan are overpowering.

Ultimately though this crisis mixes nature’s fury with human stupidity. The deep ocean is an environment completely alien to humans, potentially the foundation of the food chain, and yet we disturb it in the dark without the necessary countermeasures.

Another short-term gain sacrifices the long-term health of the planet.

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