July 21, 2010 / 3:25 PM / 9 years ago

Special report: Plumes, politics and the sultan of spill

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - It is a Thursday morning in early July and Thad Allen is ready to start his day. There are three states to visit, an oil company to challenge, and a cleanup process to inspect — all in less than 12 hours.

National Incident Admiral Thad Allen (L) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson brief U.S. President Barack Obama (C) about the situation along the Gulf Coast following the BP oil spill, at the Coast Guard Venice Center in Venice, Louisiana, in this White House photo taken on May 2, 2010. REUTERS/Pete Souza/The White House/Handout

It is, in other words, business as usual for the former Coast Guard boss, the unlikely face of an Obama administration that has been pilloried by critics for a tepid response to the worst oil spill in U.S. history — a perception the White House and Allen vehemently dispute.

After breakfast at his New Orleans hotel, Allen loads up in a waiting SUV, leaving by 7:00 a.m. for the airport, where a helicopter will fly him to Theodore, Alabama, his first stop.

The roughly one-hour flight gives Allen and his entourage a clear view of the work underway to fight the spreading spill. Lines of “boom” — the material used to protect land from the encroaching oil — snake across the dirty-green water, hugging the borders of the marshland. To the non-expert eye, it seems to be placed at random.

In Theodore, Allen visits a multifaceted response facility that, among other things, stores, cleans and sends out boom for use on the oily water. He chooses this space to brief the press, a big part of his job since the crisis began. Some 40 chairs are set up in the large warehouse but only a handful of reporters are present; the rest dial in by phone.

Behind Allen’s podium, workers in bright fluorescent yellow shirts work at long tables repairing damaged boom. Against that backdrop, he gives an update on how much oil has been captured and reiterates that it will take until August, once BP’s relief wells are complete, for the well to be totally sealed.

Asked about optimistic comments from a BP official indicating the well could be capped ahead of schedule — directed, apparently, at reassuring the company’s investors — Allen is dismissive.

“I don’t want to speak for BP and their inter-communication regarding how they deal with their board,” he says. “My board of directors is the American people. Next question.”

BP may be ahead of schedule after all. Last week the London-based company succeeded in capping the well, stopping oil from spewing into the Gulf for the first time in nearly three months. But officials say the relief wells remain the only permanent solution to the problem.

Once the leak is stopped for good, the administration’s response effort will shift to long-term recovery for the battered region. President Barack Obama has charged Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, with putting together a plan for that recovery. Mabus told Reuters it would take a few months for his plan to be finished.

That means Allen’s busy days will continue a little longer before he can do what he had intended to do before the BP disaster collided with his life — retire.


On the night of April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, Allen was asleep.

The 61-year-old father-of-three had good reasons for sweet dreams. He was about to conclude his 39-year military career. A job at a leading think-tank awaited, and time with his wife, grown children and two grandchildren beckoned.

Shortly before midnight the admiral, who normally goes to bed by 9 or 10:00 p.m., awoke to a ringing phone. A rig had exploded. Workers were missing. Burned victims required evacuation.

Allen kicked into gear, staying up most of the night to direct the search and rescue effort and oversee the Coast Guard response.

“We knew there were 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board the rig, so we already knew there was a pollution problem before we knew there was a problem with the pipeline,” he said in an interview. “So we started mobilizing response assets.”

It would not be the last late night he would spend working on the evolving disaster. Allen’s life, along with the lives of millions of people along the Gulf Coast, was about to change.

Meanwhile, at the White House — not far away from Allen’s residence in suburban Maryland — a still-awake President Obama also received an unexpected late night briefing.

A National Security Council official informed him about the explosion and resulting rescue efforts. Obama inquired about injuries. Information was limited, but the two men discussed the potential consequences that could ensue from the large amount of oil stored on the rig.

Over the next three months energy giant BP Plc’s deep-sea well, ruptured from the rig’s explosion, would spew millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf, damaging regional economies, threatening local livelihoods, pounding fragile ecosystems, and putting the president’s and his party’s already damaged political prospects at risk.


The Coast Guard’s response to the disaster started immediately after the explosion, and the rest of the administration followed shortly thereafter.

Obama, who has fought persistent criticism that his response to the explosion was slow, gathered top relevant cabinet officials at the White House on April 22nd, the day the rig sank.

“The president did exactly what people should want the president to do from the moment this happened,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, during an interview in his West Wing office.

“He convened his key people in the Oval Office. He mobilized all the resources of the federal government. You know, he got a clear picture of what the situation was.”

The picture was grim. Advisers told Obama that in a worst case scenario the well could be leaking 160,000 barrels of oil a day, Axelrod said. That contrasted dramatically with the 1,000-5,000 barrels a day estimate that was the prevailing projection in the disaster’s initial days. Advisers also told the president it could take 60-90 days before a permanent solution — relief wells — would stop the flow.

“The president knew from the beginning and reacted to the possibility of a massive environmental disaster,” Axelrod said, mindful of public perception to the contrary. “This was not something that snuck up on us.”

As Commandant — the Coast Guard’s highest position — the incident had not snuck up on Admiral Allen, either. A veteran of numerous major disaster response efforts including the September 11, 2001 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, Allen spent the hours between the rig’s explosion and its fall running the emergency response.

Two hours after the Deepwater Horizon went down, he was briefing Obama. “It was Earth Day and the president had just held an event in the White House for environmental groups,” Allen said. “I don’t think the irony was lost on anybody.”

The meeting included Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, energy and climate adviser Carol Browner, economic adviser Lawrence Summers, and other officials whose agencies were involved in the response.

The avuncular admiral, despite a career that had brought him into the top echelons of the military, had never attended a meeting in the Oval Office. He was the last person to walk in that day and discovered, to his surprise, that the only seat open was next to the commander-in-chief.

“I found out later the president usually sits here and the VP sits here,” he said, sketching a diagram into a reporter’s notebook and signaling the seat usually occupied by Vice President Joe Biden or visiting foreign dignitaries.

“It literally was the last seat in the room, and I don’t think it was by intent,” he said, amused.

Biden was not present, Allen took the seat, and the meeting began.

“He basically wanted to know what happened. So I talked to him about the search and rescue case, what had happened up till then, the rig sinking, the implications for pollution,” Allen said.

Obama responded forcefully. “He said, ‘I want everything thrown at this. It’s got to have our complete attention. It’s a high priority,’” Allen said. “When I walked out of there, I didn’t have any doubt on my mandate.”


Allen’s mandate would expand rapidly. On May 1, fewer than two weeks into the spill, the president chose the admiral to oversee, officially, the government’s response as National Incident Commander.

The White House needed a shift.

As a quick fix to the problem proved elusive, the administration faced increasing pressure to exert leadership over BP, whose efforts to plug the well were failing and whose credibility with the American public was low.

Obama’s credibility was slipping, too. Though officials stressed his laser-like engagement on the issue, sometimes wanting minute-to-minute updates on attempts to stop the flow of oil, the prevailing public image involved a U.S. president who did not appear to be in charge.

White House officials dispute that, and blame themselves for poorly demonstrating his role and theirs in overseeing BP’s work. “I think we probably could have done a better job at communicating what we were doing to hold them accountable,” said Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, referring to BP.

Zichal and Browner, her boss, had become the main White House contacts for the spill response, working with Allen to oversee BP and coordinate the complex mix of government agencies involved.

“If at any point in time we think that they’re doing something wrong, we tell them that and we direct them to do differently,” Zichal said in an interview.

If that was not clear to the public, Axelrod — Obama’s communicator-in-chief — also cited mistakes in messaging.

“I don’t think we communicated what we were doing as effectively as we could have. And you know, that’s as much my responsibility and the responsibility of others as anybody,” he said. “We were, from the beginning, planning for the worst and hoping for the best, but we knew that it was highly possible that there would be no relief until the wells were drilled.”

Part of the problem involved not having one messenger.

The spill crossed many federal departments’ jurisdictions and a host of various cabinet secretaries were commenting in public, giving the impression of administration action, minus coherence.

“When you have a crisis like this it’s best to have one or two principal spokespeople who are in command of the situation,” Axelrod said. “We have lots of superb cabinet members, but, you know, there’s 16 federal agencies involved in this.”

The administration needed a mouthpiece and a take-charge overseer. It found one in Allen.


In some ways, the apolitical admiral seemed an odd choice for a high-profile, deeply political administration endeavor, but Allen’s background gave him a unique set of credentials to respond to a disaster of this scale.

“I keep running into these things throughout my life,” he said, chuckling. “This is obviously the most complicated, challenging event I’ve ever been involved in.”

That’s saying something. Allen led the federal response and recovery operations for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, taking over for discredited Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown, who was praised, infamously, for a job well done by President George W. Bush.

Allen said the widely-criticized initial response to Katrina impressed upon him the need for one official to exemplify the federal government’s role.

“What we lacked was a face of the federal response,” he said. “Somebody has to be emblematic of the federal government’s commitment and what it is they’re trying to do, and they also have to be accountable for things that go good or bad.”

Although the Obama administration sings his praises, Allen has his detractors.

“He’s either very incompetent or he’s following orders,” said Clint Guidry, 61, acting president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, whose members have suffered acutely from the spill. “He’s probably a really nice fella — but if this is the best he’s got, he ought to retire and go play with his grandchildren.”

Allen is used to the criticism. His job covers a wide range of areas. He addresses the media almost daily, oversees BP’s efforts to plug the well, coordinates efforts between government agencies, briefs lawmakers and government officials in Washington and the affected states, and oversees cleanup activities along the coast.

With that job description, not everyone will be happy with his performance. “There’s probably not a day goes by that somebody in this country doesn’t make a demand publicly that I be fired,” he says.

Does he consider that a compliment?

“Well, it’s my ultimate wish,” he says, laughing.

Allen retired from active duty in the Coast Guard on June 30, retaining control over the oil spill response as a civilian within the Department of Homeland Security.

On his first day out of uniform in the White House press room, Allen joked to reporters that his wife had taken him suit shopping. His pants draped over his black shoes, seeming a bit too long. A regular exerciser who likes to ride his bike to work, Allen’s belly pushes out through his clothes and his neck folds out over his collar.

He pronounces “Washington” as if it were spelled with an “r” — “Warshington” - and splits his time between the U.S. capital and Gulf coast states.

He says he works 14-18 hour days, but that may be modest. Colleagues peg a typical day at closer to 18-20 hours.

“He’s sort of like the Energizer bunny,” said the White House’s Zichal. “The guy gets up at 5:30 in the morning and I get emails from him at, like, 10:00 at night.”

When asked whether he’s tired, Allen seems momentarily stumped by the question. “Right now?” he asks. “Oh, I don’t have any problem going to sleep at night.”


During Allen’s three-state visit in early July, his ability to explain things to the press, government officials, and the public was very much on display.

He is a no-nonsense, straightforward speaker. With a deep voice that can come off as both grandfatherly and gruff, he answers questions briskly, sometimes slipping into jargon, and occasionally closing his eyes, pursing his lips and nodding vigorously to underscore a point.

When he is finished taking questions, Allen leads a demonstration for the assembled reporters on oil skimming equipment. Then it’s on to the next stop: a helicopter ride to Mississippi, where he will have lunch with Coast Guard officials and others working on the spill response.

The catered buffet meal, set up for Allen and his entourage, includes fish from the Gulf — a fact Allen is quick to highlight. He takes a second helping. Food safety is one of the many varied issues that are part of his current job description.

Lunch conversation revolves around the cleanup process in Mississippi.

“What’s the furthest offshore your vessels are operating?” he asks Coast Guard Commander Jason Merriweather. The answer: 2 miles.

“Somebody told me they’re using onion bags,” Allen remarks, referring to boaters who are cleaning up oil on the water. “Instead of harvesting hay, we’re harvesting oil.”


The next stop in Allen’s day gives him a close-up look at that cleanup process. After taking pictures with the officials who joined him for lunch — “Thanks for all you’re doing, guys,” he says — Allen drives through Pascagoula to the port, or staging area, from which the vessels involved in cleaning up the oil embark.

Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor, an Allen critic, is waiting to join the admiral on a ride to observe the “vessels of opportunity” — small, private boats that are dispersed throughout the Gulf to help clean up the oil.

Around 1:00 p.m., Allen and Taylor board a large crew boat, normally used to supply oil rigs, and embark. They float past huge rigs and a natural gas storage facility still under construction. A refinery is visible in the distance and a flock of pelicans flies by.

No oil is visible in the water close to shore, but about an hour later, the scene is different. Little clumps of cocoa-colored oil, some the size of portobello mushrooms, others the size of small coins, litter the water. Some look like snack crackers, others like rolled up balls of dirt.

The scene confirms Allen’s oft-repeated description of the disaster: it is not a monolithic spill but, rather, 100,000 little patches of oil.

Taylor refers to the clumps as “mat” and says they have the consistency of pudding and can be as large as a school bus.

The boat reaches a group of seven fishing vessels. In one of them, two occupants use nets attached to poles to scoop up the oil clumps, reaching into the water and sweeping around their boat, then hoisting them up quickly as if cleaning up excrement from a dog.

It is hardly the flotilla needed to address such a massive problem, and Taylor is chagrined they do not have better organization.

“The vessel of opportunity program has done some good and it’s certainly helped some folks who were hurting with a paycheck. The problem is, to date, it has been still poorly coordinated,” he said in an interview.

“You see money being spent, but the results aren’t there.”

Taylor points out one 40-45 foot boat. It has no boom and the occupants do not appear to be working. The congressman believes they are receiving a paycheck for being out on the water but not doing anything for it.

He and Allen later discuss what they have seen.

“I think it may be time for a paradigm shift on how we view the defense of the coast line,” Allen tells Taylor.

They exchange ideas and Taylor thanks Allen for coming to Mississippi.

“I appreciate you being here, I appreciate you sticking around to help the nation out for a while,” Taylor says.

“I’ll keep working it,” Allen replies.

“You’ll get that trip to Ireland,” Taylor says, encouragingly, referring to a desired vacation.

“I’m gonna have to get the trip to Ireland if I’m gonna stay married,” Allen laughs.

Their banter is friendly but a tension underlies it. Taylor has called previously for Allen to be replaced.


Allen concedes there are lessons to be learned from the government’s handling of the oil spill, and he says those lessons are being documented for the future.

Officials should be better prepared to accept help from residents and more flexible about moving resources around the country to the crisis area, he said. Transparency and communication in the era of social media could also be improved.

Others see wider problems in the government’s initial response: a failure, in general, to challenge the assumptions that BP made about the oil flowing from the ruptured well and the company’s ability to stop it.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner for physics, noted early on that officials from the Department of Energy (DOE) were not responding critically to what BP was saying.

“I got the impression that the DOE team was not really critically evaluating how they were being briefed by the BP people, but just passing down information,” he told Reuters during an interview in early June.

He recalled a conversation with a colleague about the issue. “I said to Tom Hunter ... Tom, either you or I have to go down there and take personal charge of what’s going on here because we need to be entering in a different type of dialogue where we’re asking questions, we’re seriously challenging assumptions and to try to get more critical thinking going.”

Chu ended up “embedding” himself at BP headquarters in Houston on several occasions and White House officials credit him for spotting problems and suggesting ideas on behalf of the administration.

Some residents in the Gulf cite mistakes made closer to home. Data about the safety of chemical dispersants is not widely available, they say. Health risks from working in the cleanup effort seem downplayed.

More than anything, despite a barrage of visits from the president’s top cabinet officials and four by Obama himself, the government, they feel, is still not in charge.

“I think Mr. Obama needs to stop acting like he works for BP,” said Michael Roberts, 51, a commercial fisherman in Louisiana, who says he has gotten sick because of the oil.

“His platform was, ‘the buck stops here,’ but, I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem like he’s been in control.”


The White House says Obama is very much in control and setting the tone from the top. He was actively involved in getting BP to agree to a $20 billion fund to pay claims for Gulf residents and businesses.

“I have observed his determined focus on this each and every day,” said Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, adding the president insists on a full briefing about the spill seven days a week.

“That has kept the focus of the administration from the very top down on making sure we’re doing everything possible to respond to this disaster,” she said in a telephone interview.

Obama’s advisers have worked to improve the marketing of the president’s involvement, too.

On his third trip to the region on June 4, Obama made an effort to express emotion and connect with people affected by the spill. He showed anger over reports that BP had been slow to pay claims and made sure to meet with locals, not just officials.

While meeting with the mayor and other business people in Grand Isle, Louisiana, the president took several minutes to peel one shrimp before putting it in his mouth while journalists’ cameras clicked. His unspoken message: the food from the region is still safe.

“We are not going to forget the Gulf,” he told a small crowd of people outside a seafood restaurant there. “Even when I’m not here, I’m thinking about you.”

Gulf residents are grateful for the attention and say Obama’s cabinet members have had a visible presence in the region — a contrast to the Bush administration’s response during Katrina.

Some complain, however, that the visits do not produce results, and they wish Obama would stay for a longer period of time.

“Let us take (Obama) out there just after they’ve sprayed dispersant all over the place and it’s full of white foam everywhere and the air is so bad that you get a severe headache and start vomiting,” says Tracy Kuhns, 56, referring to fishermen working on cleanup crews.

“What’s happening out there on the ground to these people ... who are living in this every single day is totally different from the reports he’s getting across a desk or what he’s seeing on TV or what Thad Allen or anybody else is saying.”

Whether everyone is happy or not, the government response to the spill has been unarguably immense.

The administration sends out a numbers update on a daily basis. In mid July, they looked like this: Some 45,000 personnel were working on shoreline protection and cleanup. More than 6,900 vessels were involved in skimming, diverting and cleaning up oil.


Back on the boat in Mississippi, Thad Allen has finished briefing Congressman Taylor and takes a call from the White House. It is Carol Browner.

Allen had sent BP a letter demanding a timeline from the company for the placement of a new cap on its blown-out well. The letter was meant to show leadership and it generated a reply.

Browner and Allen agreed it had been a good day.

Back on shore, the admiral — who says he does not plan a post-spill career in politics — walked, like a politician, over to a group of local cleanup crews for a visit before getting into a waiting vehicle to head to the airport.

Once there he proceeded to a conference room for a daily “principals” call that usually includes Browner, Napolitano, Chu, Salazar and the other leading players in the government response.

“What time does the day start tomorrow?” he asks his staff before it begins.

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By 4:40 p.m. he is loading a helicopter to fly back to New Orleans. His head tilts forward during the flight; it is a rare opportunity for a nap.

Once in New Orleans another conference call, this time with his staff, takes place at 6:00 p.m. in Allen’s hotel room. Sitting at a desk with his head over the phone’s loud speaker, he reminds his team that the coming two weeks would be consequential.

And he puts in another plug for the local food supply. “I’m here to say the fish is good.”

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