Obama On Oil Mess: 'I Take Responsibility' President Obama spoke about the BP oil spill and cleanup effort Thursday, from the White House. He temporarily re-instated the moratorium on off-shore drilling that he'd lifted earlier in 2010, and took questions about the government's response.

Obama On Oil Mess: 'I Take Responsibility'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Encouraging news from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where the effort to plug the oil gusher appears to be working, but no firm word yet. Shifts in the loop current may hold the sludge in the Gulf and not put it out into the Gulf Stream.

But new estimates of the size of the spill make it our worst ever by far, and here in Washington, the first head rolled today. Elizabeth Birnbaum resigned as director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

President Obama heads to Louisiana tomorrow, his second trip to the Gulf Coast, since the disaster started five weeks ago. Today, he held a news conference at the White House, his first in three months, where the temporarily reinstated the moratorium on offshore drilling that he'd lifted earlier this year and took questions about the government response. We'll fill you in on what he said and get reaction on his efforts to contain the oil spill and the political damage.

Later in the program, former Senator Pressler on who served in Vietnam, who didn't, and the long-term effects. But first, the president's remarks and reaction to it.

We'll begin with the president himself, who, as he began the news conference, made a series of announcements about efforts to re-evaluate drilling that's going on, suspend some of the drilling that's going on; and he said that there has been urgency on this question, this catastrophe, as he described it, from day one.

President BARACK OBAMA: The day that the rig collapsed and fell to the bottom of the ocean, I had my team in the Oval Office that first day. Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency, don't know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred.

Personally, I am briefed every day and have probably had more meetings on this issue than just about any issue since we did our Afghan review; and we understood from day one the potential enormity of this crisis and acted accordingly.

So, when it comes to the moment this crisis occurred, moving forward, this entire White House and this entire federal government has been singularly focused on how do we stop the leak, and how do we prevent and mitigate the damage to our coastlines.

The challenge we have is that we have not seen a leak like this before, and so people are going to be frustrated until it stops. And I understand that. And if you're living on the coasts, and you see this sludge coming at you, you are going to be continually upset, and from your perspective, the response is going to be continually inadequate until it actually stops. And that's entirely appropriate and understandable.

But from Thad Allen, our national incident coordinator, through the most junior member of the Coast Guard or the under-under-undersecretary of NOAA, or any of the agencies under my charge, they understand this is the single most important thing that we have to get right.

CONAN: With us here in Studio 3A is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Always good to have you with us, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And the first thing the president wanted to do was to establish that he has been in command of this situation, that he is in charge, and that they have not underestimated the worst case, as he put it.

ELVING: They have not underestimated from a standpoint of a hypothetical. They have been dealing with the idea that perhaps the flow was far greater than they and BP had previously estimated. And after questions were raised, among other places on NPR and our reporting, that the actual flow that was coming from this blowout was far, far greater than being initially reported by BP.

This has been recalibrated, and the president is admitting that there is a great deal more oil coming out of this blowout than they initially thought.

So he was owning and taking responsibility for things that have gone on in the weeks since April 20th. He was saying we have not been disengaged, we are fully engaged. It may not be something that you would immediately think he would be proud of, to say that his administration has been right there supervising BP throughout this, but I don't think there's really any choice.

He has to acknowledge the reality of the situation, which is that we are reliant, as a nation, on BP to try to deal with the fallout from this horrendous accident.

They are there. They have the equipment. They have the expertise. But the government has a responsibility to its citizens to try to safeguard the shores, to try to safeguard the environment, the ecology of this part of the world, enormously important, and to balance all that against this country's enormous interest in providing a certain amount of domestic energy.

CONAN: And he said the question is - he asked to the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: do we have the technology to go in there and do something that BP is not doing? And they said: No, sir, we do not. And he said: We are reliant on the technology and the expertise of BP.

Whether the federal government should have that capability is another question, but it doesn't exist now. So until this is fixed, yes, our interests and BP's coincide in stopping that. He said it may be in their interest to minimize the damage. And indeed, the estimates out today are that the spill is at least twice what BP estimated and maybe as much as four times as what they estimated.

The president was also asked about comparisons between this and Katrina.

Pres. OBAMA: I'll leave it to you guys to make those comparisons, and make, and make, and make judgments on it because - because what I'm spending my time thinking about is how do we solve the problem.

And when the problem is solved, and people look back and do an assessment of all the various decisions that were made, I think people can make a historical judgment. And I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis.

CONAN: Not to say, he went to say, that everything we have done is perfect. Our flow team was not in place in time. There are some things that we wish we could have done better. No, there was not good enough advanced planning. But nevertheless, anything that has been done is being done, he said.

For example, Governor Jindal's plan to erect some barrier islands off the Louisiana coast, when he was down there two weeks ago, and Governor Jindal mentioned it to him, he said we're going to look into that, and I will get the Army engineers on this. And he announced today, that indeed some parts of that will go ahead. Whether that's too little or too late remains to be seen.

ELVING: Remains to be seen. The president did not entirely leave it to us to make the judgment with respect to Katrina, because so much of what he has done in this hour that he was on stage - a little more than - was to try to show the engagement and the seriousness and the front-burner aspect of this problem from the standpoint of his administration. That's what he's putting forward, as opposed to and in contrast to, the initial reaction to Katrina from the Bush administration in 2005.

CONAN: He was also asked about the agency that has been at the heart of this scandal, the MMS, the Minerals Management Service, and he said the impression that he had left, that a lot of the problems in that service were due to the Bush administration. He commented about problems over the last decade.

Of course, this administration has been in almost a year and a half at this point. The secretary of interior was confirmed on the first day of the administration, Ken Salazar, and the president said, well, some things were done well, and some were not.

ELVING: Well, MMS...

Pres. OBAMA: Salazar came in and started cleaning house, but the culture had not fully changed in MMS - and absolutely, I take responsibility for that.

There wasn't sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place. There is no evidence that some of the corrupt practices that had taken place earlier took place under the current administration's watch. But a culture in which oil companies were able to get what they wanted without sufficient oversight and regulation, that was a real problem.

Some of it was constraints of the law, as I just mentioned, but we should have busted through those constraints.

CONAN: And some of this he also put on Congress, as well, in terms of regulations that, for example, required MMS to give a yes or no answer on environmental regulations within 30 days after an application was made. He said they were routinely waived because you can't do a reasonable environmental assessment within 30 days.

So there was that, but there was also the question of Mr. President, just before this, you lifted the long-standing moratorium on offshore oil drilling. There are plans afoot to drill, not in the warm and relatively nearby waters of the Gulf of Mexico but off the coast of Alaska, in terrible conditions.

ELVING: The president essentially said we changed our position on this because we felt it was necessary to reach beyond the easy ways of getting oil, the less-risk ways of getting oil, because that was insufficient to meet the needs of our future was the phrase he used.

And also, he said he was using this as a way to reach out to those who feel that more drilling is really the answer to get their cooperation in a larger effort to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels, to work more towards renewables, to be more of a green energy power and to compete with the Chinese and the Germans to build that kind of technology.

So he was trying to, essentially, set an environment where a climate change and energy bill such as was being prepared in negotiations between some Republicans, Democrats and even one independent to move forward in the Senate.

Now, obviously, a lot of that had fallen apart even before this particular accident began. The president also said that they had done all this and given ground on the offshore drilling issue, because he had what he called the impression that oil companies had their act together when it came to the potential for major accidents such as this - that they had the technology to prevent it or, if they couldn't prevent it, to deal with it better than as we've seen they can do.

CONAN: And he said look at the record, offshore drilling and oil production has gone on for many years in the Gulf of Mexico at great depths, and there has not been anything like this disaster. But then he added: it only takes one.

ELVING: It only takes one.

CONAN: And the president then said at the very end of his news conference that if you're looking for responsibility, well, BP is responsible. If you're looking for accountability, he is responsible.

Pres. OBAMA: In any of your reporting, in case you were wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy. It doesn't mean it's going to happen right away or the way I'd like it to happen. It doesn't mean that we're not going to make mistakes. But there shouldn't be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged, and I'm fully engaged, all right? Thank you very much, everybody.

CONAN: And with that, the president ended a news conference of over an hour in length where he concentrated almost exclusively on the oil spill catastrophe, as he described it, in the Gulf of Mexico, how his administration has reacted from day one, the mistakes it's made and where it plans to go from here.

The president tried to recover some sense of the political control of this crisis when he said I am in charge. BP is under our command. They are doing what we tell them to do. For example, they said they would drill one relief well. We said we thought that was inadequate, you will drill two - which is what they're doing.

But maybe the most important thing that he's waiting on, the most important development, is what's happening at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico right now, a little more than 24 hours since the top kill operation went into effect. So far so good, but no final word yet. More reaction when we come back after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

President Obama spent a little more than an hour this afternoon responding to tough questions from reporters at the White House about the federal government's response to the oil spill, whether BP is doing enough, his newly announced a sixth-month moratorium on offshore drilling, the government's relationship with BP and other issues.

The president took responsibility for the response efforts and the criticism, saying it's my job to make sure this thing is shut down.

From what you heard, is the federal government doing enough? Did anything the president say change your mind? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Joining us now by phone from the Gulf Coast is well-known Democratic strategist James Carville, on the line from New Orleans. And James, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. JAMES CARVILLE (Democratic Strategist): Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And you've been - I wonder if you had a chance to watch the news conference and what you thought.

Mr. CARVILLE: I did. You know, I think the president's going to have -when he comes down tomorrow, assuming that he goes to somewhere other than Grand Isle, which is like a Potemkin Village, but I think if the president went into these marshes and saw the massive environmental damage that I saw yesterday, I think that he would step it up some, I really do.

Honestly, deep down in my heart, I believe that he's being ill-advised as to how profound this disaster is on the Gulf Coast, and I think that BP is not being nearly pushed hard enough.

CONAN: In what way? What more could they do?

Mr. CARVILLE: For instance, yesterday I spent three hours at the mouth of the river. I saw no one doing anything, and I was down there with Anderson Cooper, was with the governor, and we were in these marshes, and there was oil everywhere. There was no, not a single person. It was like you were in Antarctica, nothing.

Now, of course, no one is fishing. That's the most productive fishing waters in the world, and we're going to lose all of those wetlands. I mean, they're gone. And I don't think that - and there's no Coast Guard. There's no contractors. There's no anything. There's no scientists.

And now we're finding out that 37, 38 days later, that it's more oil being dumped into the Gulf than BP ever told us. They've lied at every juncture here, at every juncture, and what this government needs to do, what the federal government needs to do, is institute criminal proceedings against BP.

There's a wonderful piece in Bloomberg, I've been calling this forever, and they need to make them put up massive amounts of money to avoid going to jail, because that's where they should go, and the only way they can avoid jail is by paying massive, massive, massive settlements.

There are already - already, BP is trying to rig this case before a pro-industry judge in Houston. It was already in there. They're sending out - the lawyers are sending out memos to tell people how to delay claims, cut people short on these claims.

The people of the Gulf Coast against BP, they're not going to do very well in this litigation. The federal government needs to stand up and put all of its legal resources behind these people on the Gulf Coast.

CONAN: Before or...

Mr. CARVILLE: That's what the president needs to do.

CONAN: Before or after they cap that well?

Mr. CARVILLE: Well, they've got to cap the well, but that doesn't have anything to do - they're trying to cap the well. I agree with the president. BP has everything (unintelligible) criminal proceedings, you know. They've got time. They made $6 billion in the first quarter. They can do two things at once.

CONAN: And as - in terms of marshalling the resources of the Coast Guard and the other federal authorities, you also think the government response has been adequate?

Mr. CARVILLE: I don't think it's been adequate. I think that they should have contractors down there. They should be moving things out. They have no - who's - it's important that we know what's coming out of the Gulf and how much because there's no plan. Right now there is zero plan. If anybody can tell me what the plan is to clean it up, I have no idea. I have no idea.

What's our strategy when this is over? No, I don't know. And the federal - yes, I think the federal government and BP, I think everybody wants to plug this hole up. I mean, oh, wow. But what's - do we have a long-range strategy? Do we have people in place? No.

CONAN: Given that the administration has been there for about a year and a half, did they move quickly enough on MMS?

Mr. CARVILLE: No, I - personally, no, and we knew this was a operation that was engaged in multitudes of crimes. We knew that from the 2007 IG report. We picked it up and we saw this in the New York Times. I think the president admitted that much. I give him credit for that. He was very - I thought, as opposed to other things, he said, well, you know, maybe we did not move fast enough. And they did not move fast enough.

For the life of me, I can't believe that he hasn't called the secretary of the Interior on the carpet, and in fact, he didn't know today that they had actually fired - at least somebody finally got fired in this government. That was wonderful.

CONAN: I'll ask you to put your - step away from the wetlands just for a moment, if you can, and put your Democratic strategist hat on. How much is this costing him?

Mr. CARVILLE: I actually think that the president, if he dropped, just these are good - and he had some nice things to say. These are some of the finest, hardest-working people in the world, and these 11 people that were killed were from fine families.

I knew the fathers of one of these young people that were killed, and if he drops his hammer on BP, who believe - you understand the chairman of the BP board had the utter gall to say, look, we're a big, important company, and the U.S. is a big, important nation. If he made, if he got them to the brink of going to jail and made that company put up billions of dollars to recompense people for this disaster, I think his approval rating would be 75. I do.

CONAN: James Carville, thanks very much.

Mr. CARVILLE: You bet.

CONAN: And we thank you very much. We appreciate your time today. James Carville, Democratic strategist, joining us from Louisiana. As you heard, he was out in the marshes yesterday and saw virtually - many places where virtually nothing, indeed nothing, was happening and wonders what the plan is afterwards.

Ron Elving, as we listen to outrage from somebody you might consider one of the president's key supporters, there are also going to be plenty of Republicans down in Louisiana saying, well, Bobby Jindal was ahead of this. He was calling for those barrier islands a long time ago. Bobby Jindal has been the one who's pressing the federal government to move ahead.

Is the - last time there a major crisis in Louisiana, there was no one who escaped the criticism, not the mayor of New Orleans, not the governor of Louisiana and certainly not the president of the United States.

ELVING: No, and I suspect that no one will escape the criticism this time, particularly from those who feel, as James Carville does, that this is a situation that could have been addressed in the period of time since the blowout in ways that would be much more highly effective than they have been.

There have been all kinds of efforts made to recruit people ad hoc to go out and try to either keep the oil from coming into the marshes or to try, in some sense or another, to mitigate the damage that it's causing there. Sometimes that's run into the problem of people being sickened by trying to do that. Sometimes it's run into the problem of just marshalling, organizing and deploying all of those people.

So anything that was not anticipated in this fashion, there is no plan for how to deal with it, as James Carville said, and there seems to not have been a plan put in place in the time since April 20th to try to mitigate the damage in that period.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Rosemary's on the line from Princeton.

ROSEMARY (Caller): Hi. I agree with your speaker, who - I think it was James Carville saying that the government hasn't done enough. How is it that we have allowed BP to use a dispersant, which is not even legal in England, where they are based, and we have allowed them, for the length of this disaster so far, to really take the lead when it is clear that they are doing things which, as Mr. Carville points out, are trying to hide their culpability?

So in my view, this has been a very tepid response. This is the same as the response that we had to the banking crisis. You know, it is - it seems no different.

CONAN: In terms of BP and containing the well, should somebody else have been put in charge of that, and if so, who?

ROSEMARY: Yes, I'm sure there are other oil companies who perhaps know better how to deal with this, and in terms of what Mr. Carville said, I think the government needs to take a very hard line with these people and say they have jail terms and extensive damages. The company should be shut down by this disaster. This is ruining, you know, a very goodly portion of the Earth, for goodness sake.

So to me it seems like the response has been quite tepid.

CONAN: Rosemary, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

ROSEMARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Ron Elving, amidst the dozens, I think it's fair to say, investigations already under way, are any of them criminal?

ELVING: My understanding is the Department of Justice has taken the attitude that there is time for the criminal investigation down the road, as some of the other work that has to be done to deal with the disaster itself, the fact that it is continuing, that as we learn, there's an enormous amount of oil being shot into the Gulf from the disaster, and they have to deal with that first and then they have to deal with the cleanup or trying to at least prevent at least some of this oil from reaching shore.

And there's a lot to try to get people's arms around before we move on to the prosecution level, and at that juncture we would anticipate that the Department of Justice would be more actively involved, as they were, for example, at the Massey Mine disaster in West Virginia earlier this year, where there were already investigations and prosecutors and subpoenas in that mine situation after a matter of just a few days.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Margaret, Margaret with us from Virginia Beach.

MARGARET (Caller): Hi. I agree with your callers and James Carville. And I just think that the federal government's afraid to step in and do anything because they're afraid that BP will sue them and say that they got in their way and kept them from cleaning up. BP doesn't have enough money to take care of the massive life they've caused loss of. And...

CONAN: And - I'm sorry. Go ahead. I didn't mean to interrupt you.

MARGARET: ...all the millions of people we have out of work - why can't they put people to work down there like Roosevelt did during the Depression and get something done to protect what's left before it's too late?

CONAN: All right. Margaret, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

MARGARET: All right.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Janice, Janice with us from Boise.

JANICE (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call. And I was just wondering: Are those who want more government involvement willing to raise taxes enough to start and cover the cost of a government program?

CONAN: In terms of a government capable with the technology that BP has to...

JANICE: Yeah. It would just be a duplication of what BP is already doing.

CONAN: And so you're suggesting that the government is - at least in that respect - doing the right thing?

JANICE: Well, yes. Go ahead and get the government involved, but raise taxes enough to cover the cost of it. And how many people are willing to do that?

CONAN: Okay. Janice, thanks very much.

JANICE: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next - and this is David, David with us from Berkeley.

DAVID (Caller): Yeah. I mean, one very quick thing is, as liberal we are, I was certainly hoping that Obama would have had a hell a lot more Roosevelt in him, especially in terms of connections to the corporate world. And I don't think he ever should have backed drilling. So that was very disturbing.

And also, I saw - just very quickly - Rachel Maddow last night. She did this wonderful piece on the fact that all this did happen in 1979. There was a major spill. And all this is just repeating a bad dream. And BP is not doing anything new. It's like they haven't learned anything.

CONAN: All right. David, thanks very much. It's interesting you should say that the president should - made a mistake when he did lift the moratorium on drilling. He was asked about that at the news conference, and this is what he had to say.

Pres. OBAMA: I continue to believe what I said at that time, which was that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall energy mix. It has to be part of an overall energy strategy. I also believe that it is insufficient to meet the needs of our future, which is why I've made huge investments in clean energy, why we continue to promote solar and wind and biodiesel and a whole range of other approaches, why we're putting so much emphasis on energy efficiency.

But we're not going to be able to transition to these clean energy strategies right away. I mean, we're still years off and some technological breakthroughs away from being able to operate on purely a clean energy grid. During that time, we're going to be using oil. And to the extent that we're using oil, it makes sense for us to develop our oil and natural gas resources here in the United States and not simply rely on imports. That's important for our economy. That's important for economic growth.

So the overall framework - which is to say domestic oil production should be part of our overall energy mix - I think continues to be the right one. Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.

CONAN: President Obama at a news conference earlier today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

NPR senior editor Ron Elving, still with us here in Studio 3A. And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Now let's go to Karen, Karen with us from Cleveland.

KAREN (Caller): Hi. Two points. One is that there's a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks, people who, you know, would have, could have, should have. We - they have lots of voices, but no actual experience. And they're talking about doing things without, you know, they're getting airtime about their ideas, but we still don't know exactly what would be effective. And I think that if there's anybody who does know, it's the federal government, who's been screaming these ideas and been -I think Mr. Obama was kind of polite about how he characterized some of these ideas.

And I think probably the worst one is Bobby Jindal, who only, you know, nine months ago was criticizing Mr. Obama for being tepid about oil drilling because Jindal wanted more and more and more of it. He's got it now, and he's got the problems that everybody said would go along with it, but he seems to forgotten that and the whole mess. But, most of all, we've got a lot of people who don't know what they're talking about who are saying, well, we could have done this and we could have done that.

CONAN: All right. Karen, thanks very much.

KAREN: Sure.

CONAN: Ron, the president said, look, people are going to inevitably look at this through the lens of politics. That is going to be what it's going to be. But the fact of the matter is my job here is to get this fixed, to get it as right as I can, to focus as much effort and energy as we possibly we can. Are we going to get everything right? No. Are we going to make mistakes? Yes. But we're going to work as hard as we can.

ELVING: That's the kind of candor that has served the president well on some occasions in the past, but is really, ultimately, not enough. I mean, people want to see him succeed at getting this oil leak/spill/blowout shut down. We have a volcano going off down under the Gulf of Mexico, and we don't really even know yet just how much oil we may be dealing with.

If top kill doesn't work, we really don't have any other options at this time, other than the relief wells, which will take until, perhaps, August - one of the estimates has said - to give us some relief from this oil flow. Then there will be plumes of oil unlike anything we've had to deal with before. There will be not only the oil washing up on Louisiana now, but far greater amounts to deal with, and we have no idea how far they may go. In the Loop Current, they could go around Florida and up the East Coast. In a way...

CONAN: That current shifted. It looks now as if it'll stay in the Gulf. But currents shift one way, they can shift another.

ELVING: And if the oil goes on until August, there's plenty of time for the currents to search - to shift several times and for hurricanes to change that pattern and for hurricanes to bring the oil who knows where. So...

CONAN: And, indeed, we got the estimate of the hurricane season today. It's supposed to be a very active season. And a big storm surge could put that oil not on the beaches, but well inland.

ELVING: So the president is saying let's - we'll have a day for politics. We'll have a day for recrimination. We may have a day for prosecution. All kinds of things may happen down the road. What has to happen now is we need to limit the scope of the problem as much as we can by shutting this oil off as fast as possible. Let's try to focus on that.

CONAN: Much more on this later today on NPR News. We'll get you the latest on what's happening with the effort to cap the well, on the new estimates of the amount of oil that has spilled into the gulf and the latest on what's been done to try to effectively clean it up. Stay with us. Ron Elving, thanks very much for your time today.

ELVING: Good to be with you.

CONAN: Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. When we come back, we're going to be talking with former Senator Larry Pressler about the consequences of avoiding service in Vietnam. Too many didn't serve, he argues, and got away with it.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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