The Gulf oil spill muddle: when oil nears shore, confusion begins

A group of Gulf Coast mayors erupted Saturday, blaming BP for letting the Gulf oil spill come ashore. But on Sunday, Obama's man in charge said it was federal coordinators' responsibility. The exchange laid bare a still-misunderstood chain of command for onshore operations.

Zhang Jun/Newscom
BP cleanup workers clean the beach on Dauphin Island, Ala., Friday. Several Alabama mayors derided BP for not doing enough to keep the Gulf oil spill from coming ashore.

One day after frustrated Gulf Coast mayors laid into a BP official, saying the company was not doing nearly enough to forestall the spread of the Gulf oil spill, the Coast Guard admiral in charge of the relief effort said that, ultimately, he is in charge.

On Saturday, Orange Beach, Ala., Mayor Tony Kennon was among the mayors laying blame for the ineffective oil spill response at BP’s door. Oil is now washing ashore on Alabama and Florida beaches, and tourism there has fallen 50 percent this year.

Speaking of one oil slick that came ashore, Mayor Kennon said that he “could not get a skimmer here in time before it made landfall. That's inexcusable. I don't care how much money BP has to spend. I want the resources here to handle any situation.”

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

But Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of coordinating the federal response, said Sunday that the people in charge of moving assets around the Gulf chessboard were not BP employees, but federal officials in his chain of command.

“As far as prioritization and directing the oil response, it is the federal on-scene coordinator, the United States Coast Guard” that is responsible, Allen said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

It was a rare moment of clarity amid the often confusing posturing that has marked the halting Gulf oil spill response.

Whose responsibility?

Both the federal government and BP have made broad and non-specific claims of responsibility.

For his part, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward on Sunday reiterated his statement that BP will clean up the mess its well is causing.

"We're going to clean-up the oil, we're going to remediate any environmental damage, and we are going to return the Gulf coast to the position it was in prior to this event,” he said on the BBC. “That's an absolute commitment, we will be there long after the media has gone, making good on our promises."

President Obama, meanwhile, said during a recent trip to Louisiana: "I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis. I am the president and the buck stops with me.”

What has been unclear to local officials on the ground in Louisiana – and now Alabama – is who, exactly, they should call when they spot oil heading for their shores.

For the most part, officials have antagonized BP, and for obvious reasons. BP’s pronouncement that the containment cap installed last week is working – siphoning away a “majority” of the leaking oil – comes too late for mayors watching oil wash ashore.

“I would love to have one of your guys go down and look at our beaches and tell me that what you see is effective and is working," Robert Kraft, mayor of Gulf Shores, Ala., said at the Saturday local mayors’ meeting.

The relief hierarchy

Yet Allen’s comments Sunday made clearer the actual operational hierarchy at the Gulf. BP, he said, is responsible for making available the necessary assets at its own expense. It is then the Coast Guard’s job to oversee the response.

Allen summed it up this way: “Coast Guard is the federal on-scene coordinator for this response. BP is the responsible party. We are the ones accountable to make sure BP does the job.”

That gap – the space between the logistical capabilities that BP brings to bear and the Coast Guard’s ability to oversee their deployment effectively – has been the single murkiest area of command and control during the cleanup.

The federal government has never contested BP’s management of the effort to kill or contain the well – BP alone has the tools and technical know-how. But the shoreline has been a gray area.

“I would say on the shore cleanup side, we have more degrees of freedom and more capability and competency we can bring to bear and a greater, wider set of authorities allow us to effect the outcome than on the sea floor – that’s true,” Allen said in a May 24 press briefing.

That area, too, is where BP is most deficient, he added:

“If I were to give you an area where I’ve had more conversations with BP than any other, it’s been on the difference between wholesale and retail: BP does wholesale really good as far as massing logistics, moving stuff around, getting it into the warehouses. That last mile of retail, where you get the siting of the oil, you got to get the boom – you got to coordinate all that, that’s where the formation has got to be tightened up.”

Complex effort

The comments of the Alabama mayors, at least, suggest that the formation has not been tightened adequately in recent weeks.

This is partly because the cleanup effort is not a black-and-white tableau of BP and the Coast Guard. Much of the cleanup is being done by a kaleidoscope of contractors paid by BP. But even in his briefing two weeks ago, Allen said the federal government was at the top of that hierarchy of organizations.

“It’s a multifunctional team, multi-disciplined team. And they’re staffed by the local federal on-scene coordinator,” he said.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill


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