White House Rebrands the "BP Oil Spill"

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A White House briefing on the Gulf Coast oil spill has laid the blame squarely on BP's shoulders. Robert Gibbs introduced the briefing topic as "the BP oil spill," a phrase that was repeated by official after official. Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano stressed that despite government collaboration on response efforts, "BP is the responsible party," a sentiment the Coast Guard's Sally Brice-O'Hara echoed at least three times during her remarks.

BP does not actually own the rig that exploded last week -- the British corporation merely leases it from Transocean, a Swiss drilling management company. The terms of the lease are unclear, though Transocean has said that it is insured for up to $950 million of losses. Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have launched a joint investigation into BP and Transocean, but at no time during today's briefing was Transocean mentioned.

After the legendary Exxon-Valdez oil spill, Congress ensured that oil companies are financially responsible for all clean-up costs and specified damages relating to spills. According to the Oil Pollution Act, if BP proves that Transocean was solely responsible for whatever caused the spill, Transocean could be held liable, but disentangling the two companies' actions will require extensive investigation and possible legal action.

Napolitano has declared the Gulf Coast incident a "spill of national significance," indicating that it had already surpassed BP's response capabilities. This classification allows the Coast Guard, which has been coordinating the response, to draw assets from other coastal areas and to open up a second command center in Mobile, AL.

Napolitano and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson will join Salazar at the site of the spill tomorrow. They will oversee efforts to staunch a leak that has defied all containment efforts. The Coast Guard announced this morning that the well was releasing five times more oil than initially estimated. Yesterday's "controlled burn" successfully burned off some of the slick, though the oil layer may not be thick enough for the tactic to work on a larger scale. 

  

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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