WASHINGTON ― As Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas coastline and its endless rain overwhelmed Houston, we decided to postpone this week’s planned episode of our Candidate Confessional podcast. In its place, we have an extended interview about the last major disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the limits of the federal government to immediately contain it.
We are talking about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began on April 20, 2010. President Barack Obama was just a little more than a year into his first term. He would call the explosion on the oil rig and the subsequent oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster in American history.” The blast on the British Petroleum rig killed 11 workers and injured many more. For days and weeks and then months, the oil continued to gush out of the well while engineers and scientists were at a loss at how to stop it.
Here we had a man-made disaster: An oil company’s risky overreach resulting in tragedy. In Houston, we are seeing the limits of over-development on land not meant for housing and concrete ― and the effects of climate change. At the time of the spill, Ben LaBolt was assistant press secretary in the White House handling communications related to energy and the environment. He sat down in our D.C. studio to talk with us about the BP disaster and give us a behind-the-scenes look at the White House response.
LaBolt was at a friend’s wedding in Palm Springs, California, when he first saw the initial incident report on the explosion and oil spill. In that moment, it seemed to him like just another incident that happened with underwater wells ― this was something that oil companies could just fix. “Little did I know that months down the road I’d be all consumed working with others to deal with the problem,” he said.
He added the obvious: “The bottom line is the problem got worse.” Here is a video of the leak released by the Department of Energy in June 2010.
It became clear that BP’s executives were full of shit. “Assumptions about oil companies having capabilities to respond to leaks and contain them themselves was not actually true,” LaBolt said.
BP was in way over its head. And the U.S. government was too. There were federal officials putting out information that wasn’t vetted or fact-checked, LaBolt added.
LaBolt said it helped to appoint a “national incident commander” that could oversee the containment efforts, which utilized multiple agencies across the federal government from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Energy to Homeland Security to the Coast Guard. Still, no one had any great ideas about how to stop the oil from pouring out of the well. At one point within the administration, LaBolt said, “there was talk of bombing the source of the oil spill.”
The lesson that Obama learned and Trump could learn was a simple one. “This was a very early lesson in how easy it was to get overtaken by events,” LaBolt said.
“There were great inspiring, amazing times in the Obama White House,” LaBolt said later in the interview. “But you also remember the times where it just seemed like you couldn’t win and there was no way out… this is one of those times.”
The well was finally sealed in September 2010.
Listen to the full interview at the top of this entry.