In a move that could be viewed as evidence of unhappiness with BP, the Obama administration held its first solo briefing on the gulf region oil spill in New Orleans on Tuesday. The briefing, by Retired Coast Guard Commandant and current National Incident Commander for the oil spill Thad Allen, is meant to bring the "best and most accurate" information to the American people after BP was not "forthcoming" in their latest information said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
While the media pressed Allen on why he was briefing alone and without the oil company, Allen simply said the two sides continue to work together but added that a single voice was the best way to communicate with the public.
"We need to be communicating with the American people through my voice as the National Incident Commander. That doesn't mean we're not talking to BP, because I have a lot of communication with them and we need to understand what they're doing to be able to communicate that with the coast guard and the national incident command," Allen said at his briefing.
The solo briefings start two days after the White House Coordinator of Energy, Carol Browner, spent Sunday morning refuting what the administration said was wrong information from BP about the latest procedure involving a cutting of the riser to stem the oil flow. Browner said BP's financial interests in the percentages of how much oil is released is having an impact in their assessment.
"BP has a financial interest in these numbers. They will pay penalties at the end of the day, a per-barrel, per-day penalty. So what we wanted was a group that didn't include BP. They looked at three issues to determine the flow rate," Browner said on NBC's Meet the Press. "They looked at what was happening on the surface using satellite imagery. They looked at what had come up through the riser insertion which has now been removed, and they also looked at the burn rates and they looked at the plume. And so based on those three groups, there were differences among the groups. That's how scientists are. They have differences. When they came back together, they put forth the number of between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels. They're going to continue to look at this."
The disagreement over the numbers is the latest in an on-going effort by the White House to maintain that the President is in charge of the oil spill, and that it is he and his administration calling the shots. "The President is in charge," Browner said on Fox & Friends Tuesday. "The day the rig fell, we were in the Oval Office. He has overseen this. He has been intimately involved." And while Browner said the two sides do work together, as BP has the technology necessary to stop the oil flow, she also highlighted the experts on the scene that talk to the White House.
"We have a brain trust of more than 100 scientists led by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel prize-winning scientists who is in the room with BP. Folks asking the tough questions, looking at whether or not something should be done, shouldn't be done. So the idea that BP is making the calls here is simply not correct."
Later on Tuesday, Gibbs also told the press that while the two sides work together, BP has not been helpful with certain information.
"Do I think -- do I think that B.P. was forthcoming on what the impact would be of cutting the riser off? No, obviously," Gibbs said. But when pressed if BP is intentionally misleading or lying to the American public, Gibbs wouldn't say. "I'm not in their meetings and what their scientists were telling them. I'm simply conveying to the American people precisely what our scientists are telling us is likely to be the result of cutting the -- the top of the riser."
But while the administration seeks to distance itself from BP, some experts say the damage may already be done.
"Obama's early mistake was in not separating his administration enough from BP, or making clear who was in charge of the disaster-the government or the company. Obama appeared to defer to BP, but as BP's actions have become a public relations nightmare, Obama has tossed the carrot and brought along a big stick with which to beat BP with at every opportunity," says Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
But, Ben Lieberman of the Heritage Foundation says no matter what the issue is between the administration and BP, that is not what should matter.
"I don't think it really matters whether the administration holds press conferences separate from BP or not. What matters is stopping the oil."