Obama's oil spill chief reflects a year later

HOUSTON Sat Apr 16, 2011 10:27am EDT

Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), national incident commander for the Gulf Oil Spill, testifies at the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling hearing on ''the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, environmental impacts, and approaches to restoration'' in Washington, September 27, 2010. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), national incident commander for the Gulf Oil Spill, testifies at the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling hearing on ''the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, environmental impacts, and approaches to restoration'' in Washington, September 27, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Hyungwon Kang

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The man the Obama administration chose to lead the fight against the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history gave BP Plc credit for capping its stricken well but criticized its shoreline cleanup efforts.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen was the face of the federal government's response to the disaster, which held the world's attention during the 87 days that London-based BP's mile-deep Macondo well spewed more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

It all began on April 20, 2010, when an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and unleashed a torrent of oil that fouled the shorelines of four Gulf Coast states.

At the height of the disaster Allen was in charge of the 47,000 workers and 7,000 ships that swarmed the Gulf Coast in the cleanup campaign. Nearly a year later the cleanup continues but Allen is back in retirement.

"Everyone wants to know, was there a sole cause, who's accountable, who's responsible for what happened," Allen told Reuters in an interview on Friday. "In my view there is just no simplistic answer here."

Even though there were several bungled attempts to cap the well over almost three months, Allen said BP's best work was done at the well site, off the Louisiana coast.

"Frankly, when I look at BP's effectiveness, they were more effective the closer they got to the well and they were probably less effective the further they got away from it," he said.

Allen criticized BP for fumbling in its efforts to mobilize a small army of contractors and sub-contractors who were charged with cleaning up the oil from the sensitive marshlands of Louisiana to the gleaming beaches of Florida.

"What they didn't realize was that was the lens by which the public evaluated the response," he said. "It's very hard to outsource core values -- compassion and empathy -- to a contractor."

The fate of the oil that gushed into the ocean is still "a huge question," Allen said. "We need a very robust research effort over the next several years to really understand the fate of the oil in the water."

Over "working dinners," Allen said he got to know BP's gaffe-prone chief executive Tony Hayward and Bob Dudley, the American who took his place.

"They were both professional, they were both responsive," Allen said. "When I asked them a question I got an answer."

Allen declined to directly criticize Hayward or Dudley but he did remark on some candid utterances that eventually led BP's board of directors to dismiss Hayward.

Hayward was pilloried in the United States for complaining he wanted his "life back" weeks after the deadly rig explosion.

"Obviously Tony Hayward on a couple of occasions revealed some personal opinions about what was going on," Allen said. "Senior leaders aren't allowed that luxury."

Allen said his own leadership style often involved an act-first-ask-questions-later approach as he pressed ahead with some decisions without clear legal authority.

"If I didn't have it, I asked for it," he said. "And sometimes I just went ahead and did it and assumed that if anybody had a problem with it they would tell me."

In the end, Allen said he was satisfied with his performance, despite heated calls by some Gulf Coast politicians at the height of the crisis for his dismissal.

"I pressed on against some pretty good criticism by local political leaders that I was incompetent," Allen said. "I sleep well at night and I'm satisfied that I worked hard every day."

(Editing by Bill Trott)

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