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Can 'Cowboy Ken' save the day?

Mark Mardell | 05:45 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

The United States Secretary for the Interior Ken Salazar, Colorado born and raised, likes to sport a shoestring tie and a cowboy hat. Rather owlish, he's not many people's idea of a cowboy, but he's threatening a move that would make a rodeo hero proud: he says his boot is on BP's neck, but he is ready to push them out of the way.

His violent imagery reflects a growing frustration within the White House. They have to look as if they are on top of the oil spill that President Obama is now calling a disaster. But they don't seem to have the legal right or the technical ability to do much about it. Instead they have to prod, cajole, encourage and threaten the giant oil company, and then sit back and hope for the best.

BP is now planning to try to stop the flow completely on Wednesday. Their stop-gap solution of sucking up the spilled oil into a ship on the surface is now capturing far less oil than it was last week. So it is not surprising that Mr Salazar has said that he's angry and frustrated that deadline after deadline has been missed, that he's not completely confident that BP know what they are doing and that if they don't do what they are supposed to they will be pushed out of the way.

It is, after all, what some critics say should happen. Democratic strategist James Carville has accused the White House of being too trusting of BP and being "lackadaisical". They presumably would like President Obama to step in and take charge. But that is easier said than done, as a rather tetchy exchange at the White House briefing on Friday showed. Spokesman Robert Gibbs was questioned repeatedly about why the White House wasn't in the driving seat. He said of BP: "It is their responsibility. They have the legal responsibility and the technical expertise to plug the hole." The law spells that out. In the case of oil spills it's the company that has to be in charge of the clear-up. Perhaps the White House could find a way around that.

But there is an even bigger problem. While the president can command the biggest and most powerful military the world has ever known, he simply doesn't have the sort of technical equipment or expertise to deal with a spill 5,000ft below the ocean. He has sent his energy secretary, Nobel Prize-winning Steven Chu, down to Louisiana to have some big-brained thoughts - but beyond some early talk of gamma rays, we have heard nothing more from him. It's tricky. The president can't afford to appear impotent, but at the moment he has to rely on BP to make him look competent. Perhaps he, and cowboy Ken, will stride in to town and take over. But it is certainly politically more comfortable for the president to stand on the sidelines tutting disapprovingly than making himself the boss of an operation that may be doomed to make one failed attempt after another.

UPDATE: Speaking at the White House, Admiral Thad Allen, who is co-ordinating the government's response to the oil spill, has said that Ken Salazar's remarks about pushing BP aside were "more of a metaphor". When reporters pressed him, he said: "To push BP out of the way would raise the question, 'to replace them with what?'" He added that he was the national incident commander and he believed that the right way to deal with this was with BP.

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