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Tough on oil: The president tries to assure a skeptical public

Written by Susan Mannella on .

President Barack Obama's press conference Thursday on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was important, if a little tardy.It was his first solo press conference in 10 months, focused largely on the April 20 oil rig explosion and its aftermath. The loss of life by 11 rig workers was the first painful outcome, particularly coming on the heels of another fossil fuel tragedy, the deaths of 29 Massey Energy coal miners two weeks earlier in Montcoal, W.Va.

Then came the horrible realization by Americans that crude oil and gas was surging into the gulf and heading toward land. Disquiet over that growing environmental and economic threat was augmented by the fact that there was no authoritative government statement of how much oil was escaping -- only statements from BP, in which less confidence was placed as time went on. Nor was there a reliable estimate of how long it would take to plug the well.Not very long after the disaster itself the need for a strong government role became clear. Statements came from different government bodies involved -- at the federal, state and local levels -- but from Mr. Obama there were largely only statements of concern. Not surprisingly, talk arose that this was Mr. Obama's Katrina, in reference to President George W. Bush's ineffective response to the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast.Mr. Obama appeared finally to get his teeth into the problem Thursday. He pledged his full attention and attached his highest priority to dealing with it. He acknowledged that the federal government had done a poor job for years of regulating the oil industry. On Friday, he visited the coastal area to survey the damage. In a sense, Mr. Obama inherited this disaster-waiting-to-happen from a regulatory-averse, oil-company-friendly Bush administration, although there is no question that the same approach to offshore drilling prevailed under the Clinton and previous administrations and had continued with the Obama administration up to the accident.Obviously, Mr. Obama or one of his administration surrogates can't swim down and plug the leak. The government is forced to rely on the oil and oil service companies to solve the problem -- the same people who were so smart about how to drill deep down, but not especially concerned with how to fix a cataclysmic leak.Mr. Obama's action in freezing new offshore drilling until the public knows what happened and techniques for dealing with mile-down disasters are perfected was needed to assure the inhabitants of U.S. shores and those who are concerned about their well-being -- meaning all Americans.As far as the political damage done to Mr. Obama, there will be plenty of time to measure that -- a point he seems to understand. Cap the well, wipe off the ducks and we can talk about the politics of it later.

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