In last week’s energy speech, Barack Obama wanted to paint his administration as heroically meeting the challenges of America, almost literally. Obama went off-Prompter to tell people that his Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, singlehandedly solved the BP spill crisis by designing the cap placed onto the busted pipe as it gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico:
“Last year, when we were trying to fill — figure out how to close the cap, I sent Chu down to sit in the BP offices, and he essentially designed the cap that ultimately worked, and he drew up the specs for it and had BP build it, construct it. So this is somebody who knows what he’s doing. (Applause.) So for those of you who are studying physics, it may actually pay off someday. (Laughter.)”
That would be a great story … if it were true. But as the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach reported on Wednesday, not only was it not true, but Chu actually forced a delay in using the cap:
But Chu no more capped the well than he invented the wheel.
If the president wants to credit Chu with designing the cap for the BP well, he might as well go all the way and say that Chu designed the space shuttle, the personal computer and the Pringle’s potato chip.
Steve Chu, let me repeat, did go to Houston, and he played a key role in the government response to the oil spill crisis. He worked very hard. What he did not do is design the cap. He did not order BP to construct it. Chu did insist that BP add diagnostic equipment which proved critical in determining the flow rate of the well. But to my knowledge (someone correct me if this is wrong), the cap — the 3-ram capping stack, as it was called — was already built at the time of the blowout, by a company named Cameron, which had also built the blowout preventer that failed.
The big steps in killing the well did not involve hardware, but decision-making. The hardest part was developing an understanding of the well and the confidence that capping it and shutting it in would solve the problem rather than make it worse through a second, underground blowout. Guess who worried that this new cap would backfire? Steve Chu. He feared (along with some other scientists) that the shutting-in of the well with this new cap could make the spill worse, and he called time-out. That delayed for a full day the sealing of the well with the new cap. If Chu had, in fact, designed the cap, one would guess he woudl not have been so fearful of its deployment.
For those of you studying politics, this is what’s known as legend-building. Obama and his team do a lot more of that than cap-building.
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