WASHINGTON — BP has been front and center in the aftermath of the explosion and oil spill at its rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
But given the scope of the ecological disaster in the making on the Gulf Coast, some critics are questioning the company's commanding role in the recovery — despite Obama administration reassurances that the Coast Guard and other government agencies are working side by side with the petroleum giant.
"It's their mess; we think it's appropriate they should clean it up," said Athan Manuel, director of lands protection for the Sierra Club. However, said Manuel, "when talking about oil companies and the government, too often the government is way too deferential. We're hoping the Coast Guard isn't taking orders from BP."
"We'd like the Coast Guard in charge," said Manuel. "Bottom line: We trust the government more than we trust the company."
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Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who's a staunch supporter of offshore drilling, toured the gulf Friday. He thinks the current arrangement, with the Coast Guard overseeing BP's efforts, is the right approach. "I think the government regulators need to be overseeing it," he said.
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., initially called for the U.S. Navy to run the operations to both cap the leak and protect the shores. But after touring the gulf with Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Taylor is no longer skeptical, said Ethan Rabin, the congressman's press secretary.
"He's confident with Admiral Allen in charge," said Rabin. "Everything BP is doing is basically being approved by the Coast Guard."
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who also toured the gulf Friday, said, "I am very impressed with the cooperation between the Coast Guard and BP. The two entities seem to be working together seamlessly and all are committed to resolving the situation, and I am hopeful this will continue."
The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to show that its top officials are on top of the crisis.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the media at an event on Thursday in Biloxi, Miss., that the federal government is riding herd on BP, which is continuing to try to skim, burn and disperse the oil and stanch the 5,000-barrel-a-day flow a mile below the surface.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke emphasized that BP would be held financially accountable for the spill.
"We understand a lot of livelihoods are on the line, not just fishermen ... but with tourism," Locke said. "BP is the ultimately responsible party ... responsible for making the entire region whole again."
BP has said it already has started making payments, and company chairman Tony Hayward said the company does not consider the federal $75 million liability cap "relevant" and will honor "all legitimate claims."
Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, a supporter of offshore oil drilling, said that BP needs to take the lead in the cleanup. "The U.S. government can lend all its support, but as you go in to cap this, it's always going to be the private sector that's the most experienced and the best equipped. No one knows it better than they do."
But there is still considerable concern about the government's role.
Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, an environmental group that monitors Mobile Bay, Ala., said, "Everything we understand that is happening must be sanctioned, approved, shaped by BP. It's totally BP."
Callaway said that she has yet to see a map of where the booms — lines of protective devices that keep oil slicks from reaching shore — are being placed "to make sure they are putting them in the most ecologically sensitive areas."
"This accident is the largest blowout accident ever," said Bob Howarth, an oil spill expert at Cornell University who has worked on oil spills for 34 years. "BP is financially responsible, but the government ought to be out there protecting us, too."
(Geoff Pender of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., contributed.)
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