The White House is really doing a passive-aggressive number with the BP oil disaster, alternately bashing the companies involved in public while subtly defending them. A perfect example, but not the only one, is the debate over raising the damage liability cap for companies like BP which are responsible for oil spills. In the abstract, the White House supports it. In fact, just yesterday, after James Inhofe became the second Republican in as many weeks to block consideration of a bill raising the liability cap, President Obama made a nice statement:

“I am disappointed that an effort to ensure that oil companies pay fully for disasters they cause has stalled in the United States Senate on a partisan basis. This maneuver threatens to leave taxpayers, rather than the oil companies, on the hook for future disasters like the BP oil spill. I urge the Senate Republicans to stop playing special interest politics and join in a bipartisan effort to protect taxpayers and demand accountability from the oil companies.”

That certainly sounds like Obama supports the underlying bill, which would raise the cap from $75 million to $10 billion. But on the specifics, Administration officials have shied away from endorsing a specific number for the cap. They keep saying they’ll “work with Congress” on it. And yesterday in hearings, Ken Salazar appeared to agree with many of the conservative arguments against the $10 billion cap – that it would put “Little Oil” out of business because the insurance would be too high (there’s no such thing as “Little Oil,” but how this is a rationale for sticking taxpayers with the bill is beyond me).

Now, there’s a compelling argument to be made that there shouldn’t be a cap at all – Harry Reid actually made that argument yesterday – but without any direction from the White House, defenders of the oil companies have used the confusion as a talking point for their side.

This has been a familiar dance. Just listen to Salazar’s alternating rhetoric at the Senate hearing yesterday:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday that federal regulation of offshore drilling had been too lax but that it was premature to say watchdogs underestimated the risks when they approved such projects.

The testimony, his first on Capitol Hill since a deadly Gulf of Mexico oil-rig explosion on April 20, came amid the release of a video suggesting that BP PLC’s latest effort to control a leaking underwater pipe didn’t meet expectations […]

“The conclusion that this is an unregulated industry is not correct,” Mr. Salazar told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “It is a very highly regulated industry. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.”

He acknowledged the MMS hadn’t adequately overseen fail-safe devices known as “blowout preventers” that are a last resort for oil companies in the event of a catastrophic blowout. The blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig failed to shut down the well, contributing to the spill, which authorities say is leaking thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf each day.

Basically, the White House is adding no fuel to what should be a fiery response about brain-dead regulators and corporate greed. Congressional Democrats have gotten the message. Dems in the Senate called for a criminal inquiry yesterday. Rep. Luis Gutierrez wants BP banned from future drilling leases. The White House has simply done nothing like this. Here’s Dan Froomkin:

The Obama administration is actively trying to dismiss media reports that vast plumes of oil lurk beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, unmeasured and uncharted.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose job it is to assess and track the damage being caused by the BP oil spill that began four weeks ago, is only monitoring what’s visible — the slick on the Gulf’s surface — and currently does not have a single research vessel taking measurements below […]

“The fact that NOAA has missed the ball catastrophically on the tracking and effects monitoring of this spill is inexcusable,” said Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska marine conservationist who recently spent more than a week on the Gulf Coast advising Greenpeace. “They need 20 research ships on this, yesterday.”

Steiner explained: “This is probably turning out to be the largest oil spill in U.S. history and the most unique oil spill in world history,” on account of it occurring not on or near the surface, but nearly a mile below.

“They should have had a preexisting rapid response plan,” he told HuffPost. “They should have had vessels of opportunity — shrimp vessels, any vessel that can deploy a water-column sampling device — pre-contracted, on a list, to be called up in an event that this happened. And they blew it. And it’s been going on for a month now, and all that information has been lost.”

With oil now visibly washing up on shores, this will only get worse for the Administration if they don’t face up to reality.

David Dayen

David Dayen