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Oil spill firms tapping a well of lobbyists

Washington Post: Companies involved in Gulf of Mexico oil spill are hiring a bevy of consultants to help them weather the crisis.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are hiring a bevy of high-priced Washington lobbyists and consultants to help them weather the crisis, as investigations heat up and calls for policy changes intensify.

BP, which has garnered the bulk of public attention and contempt for the spill, has assembled a formidable team of Democrats for its Washington lobbying and public-relations offensive. There is Tony Podesta, who heads one of the District's leading lobbying firms; Jamie Gorelick, a top Justice Department official in the Clinton administration now at the law firm WilmerHale; Hilary Rosen, a former recording-industry lobbyist who heads the Washington office of the Brunswick Group, a public-relations consultancy; and Michael S. Berman of the Duberstein Group, who was a longtime aide to former vice president Walter F. Mondale before becoming a lobbyist.

Gorelick, who also served as a member of the 9/11 Commission, proved critical in coaching the company during tense negotiations with President Obama over the creation of a $20 billion escrow fund for spill damages, according to several sources close to the talks. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that the administration "forced" BP to set up the fund and to intensify its efforts to contain the spill.

But BP has not ignored the GOP, which has been a crucial ally on Capitol Hill in tamping down calls from liberal Democrats to permanently ban drilling or lift liability limits for the company. The London-based energy conglomerate recently hired Anne Womack-Kolton, who was a press secretary for former vice president Richard B. Cheney, to head its U.S. public-relations shop. And Brunswick has contracted GOP consultants Alex Castellanos and John Feehery to work on behalf of BP, sources familiar with the arrangements said.

With nine investigations of the disaster underway, nearly every day has brought a new public-relations crisis. On Sunday, BP defended embattled chief executive Tony Hayward for taking a day off to watch a yacht race. Emanuel, in his remarks to ABC, criticized Hayward for a "long line of PR gaffes and mistakes."

BP executives, including Hayward, have appeared at nearly a dozen congressional hearings within the past month and faced the launch of civil and criminal inquiries by the Justice Department. As the company frantically tries to drill two relief wells to stop the flow, its hired guns are facing BP's drilling partners in the high-stakes legal battle over who is to blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

"This is just an avalanche that almost nobody could keep up with. It's very, very challenging," said one BP adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The adviser added that until the well is capped, "it is very difficult to get ahead of this."

"Normally, it's an event that's over that you're trying to address," the adviser said. "But this event is not over."

Anadarko Petroleum, a Houston-based exploration firm with a 25 percent stake in the Deepwater Horizon well, employs former U.S. senator Don Nickles, the Oklahoma Republican, as its chief external lobbyist, records show. The company, which kept a low profile during the early weeks of the crisis, effectively declared war Friday by calling the tragedy "preventable and the direct result of BP's reckless decisions and actions." Nickles, who also represents Exxon Mobil, was traveling outside the country and could not be reached late last week.

Another key player in the disaster is Transocean, a former U.S. firm now based in Switzerland, which leased the Deepwater rig to BP and ranks as the world's largest owner of offshore drilling platforms. Last month, the company's Houston affiliate hired lobbyists Bill Brewster, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, and Jack Victory, previously an aide to Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader and Texas Republican. Transocean has also retained crisis lawyers John H. Beisner and Ivan A. Schlager of Skadden Arps to cope with the tide of government inquiries. Representatives declined to comment or did not respond to requests.

Engineering giant Halliburton of Houston, which was in charge of cementing the well just before the April 20 explosion, has hired Jeffrey Turner of Patton Boggs to help handle legal and congressional inquiries.

Other issues will continue to be handled by the firm's existing stable of lobbyists and public-relations staff, according to spokeswoman Teresa Wong.

Smaller players also have shored up their defenses: Cameron International, the Houston firm that built Deepwater Horizon's failed blowout preventer, has retained Emmet T. Flood of Williams & Connolly, a former White House special counsel during the Bush administration who represented Cheney in the CIA leak case.

It's impossible to measure the cost of the lobbying and public-relations push so far, in part because disclosure forms for the second quarter aren't due until next month. BP alone spent nearly $20 million on lobbying from January 2009 through March 2010, ranking as one of Washington's top corporate lobbying forces.

Records show that Anadarko spent $4 million and Halliburton $1 million during the same period. Transocean and Japan's Mitsui & Co. -- the third partner in the well, with 10 percent ownership -- have not had major lobbying operations in the District recently.

Lobbyists and lawyers representing the major companies, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they are focused on providing lawmakers and their staffs with information about the disaster rather than working against legislation or regulations opposed by their clients.

"I think for the most part the lobbyists for all the companies have just been trying to give information to people; it has not been focused on policy questions at all," said a lobbyist for one of the key players. "There's a thirst for information despite the media saturation."

This lobbyist added that company representatives must be deferential: "Until the leak is plugged, there's not a lot of patience for the industry."

But Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group, said BP lobbyists and others "are clearly bracing and preparing for policy impacts from this." He also said it was no surprise that the companies would turn to well-connected Washington insiders for damage control.

"They're well aware that the most influential lobbyists are those who have Rolodexes of people inside Congress and inside government," Holman said. "These are people who know who's making decisions and how to appeal to their interests. That's the reason they exist."

Staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.