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Browner on Tensions With BP: ‘They Work at Our Direction’

July 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Four days after a new containment cap halted the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP and the government are clashing over how to proceed as seepage has been spotted in the vicinity of the well. Judy Woodruff talks to Carol Browner, President Obama's assistant for energy and climate change, for more on the story.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We take a closer look now at the concerns surrounding the well and the choices facing both the government and BP.

I spoke with Carol Browner at the White House a short time ago. She is the assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

For the record, we invited BP to participate, but company officials declined.

Carol Browner, thank you for talking with us.

CAROL BROWNER, assistant to the president for energy and climate change: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have been hearing a variety of reports over the weekend and today about leaks, about seepage in and around the well. Bring us up to date on the status of this well.

CAROL BROWNER: Well, the well is capped. It has been shut in. And we have our scientists reviewing this on a regular basis.

There have been some bubbles. There has been some seeping. At this point, they’re not concerned. But we have directed BP to provide ongoing monitoring, seismic, other analytics that our scientists review. And, if there isn’t a problem, we will continue. If there is, then obviously we will have to move to containment, which means bringing the vessels that can capture the oil back on to the site.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, for example, the leak that was — or seepage that was identified over the weekend a few miles from the site, no concern about that?

CAROL BROWNER: Not at this point in time. But all of this is being watched very, very carefully.

And we will continue to watch it until we’re certain that there is no problem, again, 24-hour approvals for the cap to stay on to make sure that we’re getting the kind of analysis, the kind of monitoring that our scientists need to make these determinations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And same question about the bubbles around the site of the wellhead. Any other small leaks around there?

CAROL BROWNER: There are some bubbles. There are some bubbles down low. There are some bubbles up higher. All of those are being carefully monitored right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, at this point, the administration’s on the same page as BP?

CAROL BROWNER: Well, we’re monitoring, and we’re watching the situation. And if things change, we will direct BP to take alternative acts.

It is very important to us, and we made that very clear this weekend, that BP provide us monitoring and seismic information on a regular basis, so that we can continue to do the kind of analysis that will give us the assurances that leaving the well closed in on a 24-hour basis is acceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m asking because, over the last few days, over the weekend, there seemed to be different — there were different statements coming from BP at one point, the administration at another point, about whether there was a leak, whether there wasn’t, whether the cap should stay on or it shouldn’t.

Was there a disagreement?

CAROL BROWNER: There are — I think it’s fair to say there were some tensions over the weekend. Obviously, everybody wants to see the oil contained.

The cap is working right now, but we’re not willing to simply say, OK, it’s working; we’re not going to worry. We want it monitored. We have directed BP to monitor it and to provide information to us on a regular basis, so we can make the appropriate analysis. And then we will go forward in 24-hour increments.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it fair to say that the administration leans toward taking this temporary cap off if necessary to get the oil to the surface, and that BP leans toward keeping that cap on until the relief wells are finished?

CAROL BROWNER: We lean towards getting this over, and getting it over in the safest possible manner.

Our scientists have warned us that there could be some unintended consequences from the cap. You could have oil leaking out in other parts of the Gulf where you couldn’t control it. So long as that is not an issue, we will move forward with the cap in 24-hour installments. If it becomes an issue, obviously, we’re going to direct BP to bring those vessels in and to start collecting the oil at the surface.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, help us understand how you are monitoring this. Is BP doing — how much of the monitoring is being done by BP and how much by the administration?

CAROL BROWNER: So, BP works at our direction. We provide them with what we want, what our scientists want in terms of how many seismic runs are made, the type of seismic run.

We have also brought our own vessel in. NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce, their Pisces vessel is now in, doing sonar monitoring, which has been very valuable. So, it is at our direction and then under our analysis that we make this decision about whether or not to continue the cap.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the actual monitoring is being done by the company, and the administration’s overseeing that?

CAROL BROWNER: It is at our direction. And then — that’s correct — we take the information and we analyze it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then, so the statements we were hearing over the weekend, is this just a result of people talking out of turn?

CAROL BROWNER: I think there might have been a little bit of that. Again, this is obviously a very difficult situation. And tensions can arise.

Everybody wants the same goal. We want what’s right for the people of the Gulf. We want this to end. But we need to do so in a way that is absolutely safe, so that we don’t create any sort of other accident or unintended consequences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you to help us understand something else. And that is the trade-offs involved. If the decision is made to keep this temporary cap on — it wasn’t intended to be permanent — is that correct?

CAROL BROWNER: That is correct. It wasn’t intended to be permanent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Then what are the trade-offs that you are looking at, if it stays on and you find out later what?

CAROL BROWNER: Well, if it can stay on, and we have no problems, then there’s no oil leaking. If we begin to have a problem, then we have to bring the vessels back in.

And, unfortunately, that will entail a couple of days of leaking while those vessels are hooked back up. But obviously we need to avoid any sort of catastrophic situation. Right now, it’s working. That’s the good news. And we’re going to be monitoring very carefully to avoid any unintended consequence.

And perhaps we can leave it on. If we can’t, we will go to containment, where we will be able to capture up to 80,000 barrels per day of oil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say catastrophic situation, you’re talking about a leak, a new leak that is not known about right now; is that what you are saying?

CAROL BROWNER: We’re talking about the possibility of many — maybe more than one leak. It would be coming up through the bedrock in maybe more than one place, and we wouldn’t be able to control it. And, obviously, that is not something anyone wants to tolerate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how worried are administration scientists that that may be the case?

CAROL BROWNER: Well, they’re not worried right now because we’re getting the monitoring and most importantly the sonar and the seismic that are giving us the answers.

And we’re going to remain vigilant throughout this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as you — let me just explore this for just a second. As you look at, again, the trade-off here of letting the oil — if you were to lift the cap for whatever reason, and you have the oil spewing into the Gulf for several days, that in itself is a negative consequence of all this.

CAROL BROWNER: Obviously, that would be a very unfortunate turn of events. But we would only do that because we thought something worse was going to occur, that the trade-off would be go to this vessel containment because the alternative is that you are going to have uncontrolled leaks in more than one place across the ocean floor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Carol Browner, to what extent — if the cap were to come off, the oil were to continue spewing into the Gulf, to what extent is BP responsible at that point?

CAROL BROWNER: They’re absolutely responsible. There’s no doubt in our minds that they are absolutely responsible.

They caused this accident. Obviously, they have a responsibility to get this thing capped. They’re working at our direction. They will continue to work at our direction. But they are the — they are responsible. Make no doubt about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the status of penalties that would be levied on BP in those circumstances?

CAROL BROWNER: BP will, under the law, pay a very, very significant penalty. That — the specific amount will be determined, but it will be a significant penalty. That is what the law requires.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going to leave it there.

Carol Browner at the White House, thanks very much.