Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gulf oil leak Q&A: What a fiasco

- Associated Press
- Associated Press Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill pools against the Louisiana coast along Barataria Bay.
- Associated Press Gallery: Gulf oil leak Q&A: What a fiasco

THE YOUTHFUL Democratic president was in his second year in the White House when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office, to talk about a dire situation in the warm waters just off the southern United States.

John F. Kennedy's successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a turning point in his presidency. Now, President Obama is looking for a similar reversal of fortune tonight when he makes his first-ever Oval Office speech - about a very different breed of crisis off of the other coast of Florida, the BP oil spill.

The president is expected to come down hard on BP in asking the owner of the devastated and still-leaking oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico to set aside as much as $20 billion for damages.

But what about actually stopping the oil flow and cleaning up the massive pollution that's already taken place? And can Obama put a cap on the flow of voters into the column of disapproval of the administration's handling of the crisis?

The Daily News gives you some questions and answers:

Q. Why is it so hard to stop the leak?

A. Basically, not only have the technological tools to plug a leaking offshore well not improved much in four decades (hence, measures like the "junk shot" of old tires and other debris) but they've never been done at a depth of 5,000 feet.

Experts have said that maneuvering robotic tools to perform complicated operations at the underwater site of the rig - beneath the site of the April 20 explosion that killed 11 BP workers - can often turn what would be a simple task near the surface into a three- or four-day operation.

And the Christian Science Monitor reported recently that relaxed regulations meant that firefighting tools or booms to stop the flow of oil that might have been in position in the 1990s weren't available.

Although a recent operation to cut and cover a section of pipe near the leak has allowed BP to capture as many as 630,000 gallons of oil a day, all the leakage probably won't completely stop until August, when relief wells are drilled.

Q. Why can't they explode a nuclear bomb down in the well to make it stop?

A. Get real. No one could predict

the consequences or the fallout - both literally and also politically - from such an explosion, and a senior administration official told the New York Times flatly that the idea is "crazy."

Q. I don't live anywhere near the Gulf, but I am worried about paying more for gasoline.

A. Nothing to worry about, in the short run. Indeed, the price of gas at the pump has dipped by about 8 percent since May because of a stronger dollar and other factors having nothing to do with the Gulf spill. There is some concern that tighter government regulation would raise prices in the longer run.

Q. Can't Obama and the government do something to make things happen more quickly?

A. That would be difficult at this stage. Arguably the biggest administration mistakes were the ones made before the explosion - not cleaning house at the scandal-scarred federal Minerals Management Service, or undoing the loose regulations of the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney years.

Even Britain's conservative-leaning Economist, which is sometimes critical of Obama, praised the government's "large and, it seems, increasingly well-coordinated operation to respond to oil as it comes to shore" - but acknowledged that's not enough to calm either Gulf residents or others infuriated by photos of oil slicks and soiled birds.

Q. So what can Obama do about this bind?

A. Andrew Mendelson, associate professor at Temple University's School of Communication and Theater, who studies politics and imagery, said a president needs to put the horrific images coming out of the Gulf "on [his] side."

That means showing concern and empathy not just for the damaged wildlife and fishermen and other residents facing a loss of livelihood, but creating situations like town-hall-style meetings in the Gulf to listen to concerns of angry citizens.

"He needs to do the opposite of what Bush did with that Katrina speech," said Mendelson, referring to a speech that the then-president delivered in front of a New Orleans church. Frequent visits by Obama to the region, minus a jacket and tie and eating local seafood, as he did yesterday, are a start, he said.

WILL BUNCH bunchw@phillynews.com 215-854-2957
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