Free Markets, Free People

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Oil spill – reshuffling the PR deck

Since hopping out in front of the cameras, thinking the top kill had worked and claiming that the administration has been in charge of the effort from “day one,” things have gone down hill for President Obama. As it turns out the top kill effort was unsuccessful. And, as the Washington Post tells us today, now the effort is to distance the administration from the oil company is supposedly was directing to do its bidding:

Struggling to convey command of the worsening Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Obama administration is taking steps to distance itself from BP and is dispatching Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to the Gulf Coast to meet with federal and state prosecutors. The Holder trip could signal that the environmental calamity might become the subject of a criminal investigation.

Holder has said Justice Department lawyers are examining whether there was any “malfeasance” related to the leaking oil well, and investigators, who have already been on the coast for a month, have sent letters to BP instructing the company to preserve internal records related to the spill. But federal officials indicated that Holder’s trip, which will include a news conference in New Orleans on Tuesday afternoon, will focus on enforcement of environmental laws and holding BP accountable.

The opening of a criminal investigation or civil action against BP, if either were to happen, would create the unusual situation of the federal government weighing charges against a company that it is simultaneously depending on for the most critical elements of the response to the record oil spill.

Usually, if there is a possibility of a criminal investigation and charges in a situation like this, they are kept in abeyance until there’s some resolution to the problem. But in this case, desparate for something which will cast the administration in a favorable light, it appears this is the chosen method. Holder’s news conference will be a welcome distraction from the constant “but what are you doing to stop the leak” questions the administration gets.

That’s the act of symbolic separation.

Step two is to physically separate the administration from the bad guys BP.

The relationship between the federal government and the oil company has been an awkward collaboration all along — “We have them by the neck,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said of BP in congressional testimony last week — but it reached a turning point Monday when the administration said it no longer wants to share a podium with BP at the daily briefing in Louisiana. Instead, the national incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, will give a solo briefing wherever he happens to be.

It is a “we’re still in command, but it is an arm’s length, hold-your-nose, we’re forced to work with these people, command.” The perfect setup for something this administration is actually quite good at – demonization.

As for the spill itself, the next step is in contention. Apparently Carl Browner, the head of the EPA has become an expert in fluid dynamics and underwater blowout prevention:

The administration and BP have disagreed over whether the company’s next maneuver would cause a temporary increase in the flow of oil into the gulf. In the coming days, BP plans to saw off the top of the leaking riser pipe where it emerges from the blowout preventer that sits on the well. BP will then lower a containment dome, or cap, onto the riser in an attempt to capture the leaking oil. White House official Carol M. Browner said Sunday that after the pipe is cut, about 20 percent more oil would probably escape before the new cap is in place. BP officials said that they think that is unlikely and that there might be no significant change in the flow.

I’m not sure where she gets the idea that cutting the riser will allow a 20% increase in the flow. They’re cutting it, not removing it. It will still be there with the same diameter it’s always had, it’ll just be shorter so they can deal with it better.

The salient point, of course, is like it or not, the administration is stuck with BP, both in the plugging of the leak and in the clean up effort. And frankly, they wouldn’t have it any other way – this is the company that will be blamed for every failing of the administration. Note I said failing of the administration – it has a role and a duty in this disaster. What it is going to do, or at least attempt to do with this distancing, is to lay all blame on BP from this point on.

Holder’s trip to the Gulf is only the opening salvo.

~McQ

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