The Oil Spill Again – May 30, 2010

This oil spill is going to be a problem for President Obama, there’s no question.  But in many respects, it will be a problem that he brought on himself – an unforced error, if you will.

After several weeks of standing aloof, apart from the occasional swipe at BP, the President has finally gotten engaged.  Now he’s saying he will not rest until this leak is fixed and the lives and livelihoods of the people of the Gulf coast have been put back to right.  It makes me think – just what is the President contributing to the effort?
I’ll tell you one clear fact, and that is that nobody on the face of the earth has a greater incentive to get this leak fixed than Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO.  This thing is costing them tens of millions a day, not to mention the growing threat – nay, make that certainty – of litigation lasting for years after the leak itself has been stanched and the spill has been cleaned up.  And with the litigation will come deep injury to the company’s reputation.  All those millions spent on re-branding themselves after the Houston explosion and that debacle, calling themselves now “beyond petroleum” and featuring a bright yellow-and-green (as in environmentally virtuous) logo – and it’s all wasted, washed away in the thick ooze bubbling out of the Gulf.
So BP has more at stake in getting this fixed than anybody.  More, even, than the Administration – while this is a growing problem for them, they have lots of other things going on that, if successful, would divert attention from the oil spill.  Things like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, like the economy and the lack of sustainable job growth, and so forth.  If Team Obama hits a homer on one or more of these fronts, they have a better chance of being forgiven for their response to the oil spill.  But for BP, this is the whole ball game, which is why Tony Hayward has taken up residence in Louisiana.
And I’ll tell you something else – BP has the best technology in the world for fixing it, as well.  The White House has no clue how to fix this.  And yet, you have people like Ken Salazar, Interior Secretary, saying helpful things like, he’s going to keep a boot on the neck of BP until this leak is repaired.  Well, excuse me – that only suggests that the Administration thinks they aren’t trying hard enough.  That is not only nonsensical, it is unhelpful.  The White House seems to want to make it clear that they are in charge of something the success of which depends on people outside the Administration.  They are in charge only in the sense that if it drags on for months it will cease to be BP’s problem and it will become Obama’s problem.  But that doesn’t mean the resolution will come from anywhere except BP.  What would they do if Hayward finally threw up his hands and said, “fine.  You fix it then. Send me the bill.” and withdrew his people?
This Administration has a knee-jerk reflex when a big catastrophe hits, and that is to a) blame the Bush administration, and b) condemn whatever private industry is involved in the catastrophe.  So again, when Obama made his speech this past week in New Orleans, he ostensibly said “I was wrong.” The New York Times gave him kudos for candor uncharacteristic of a President in these times.  But what he actually said was, I was wrong in taking too long to correct the mess that the Bush folks left us, and I was wrong to trust those oil people when they said they were running a safe rig.  So his gut reaction was that better (non-Bush) regulation was needed, and the lack of it resulted in this calamity.  Very clever that – because not only does he impress the editors of the Times for his noble acceptance of responsibility which in fact is an assignment of guilt to other parties, but he also makes the case for more and tighter regulation.  So even in the midst of this disaster he salvages something in the way of justifying the regulatory state he has in mind for all of us.
It remains to be seen what actually caused the disaster on this oil rig.  But one thing is virtually certain – tighter regulation would not have prevented it.  It was either a) a one-of-a-kind accident that the best minds planning the most complex systems would not have foreseen, or b) the result of poor governance, in which the senior officer on board the rig did not have total control over the practices employed to safely drill and pump the oil one mile below (there are stories about an argument between BP reps and the drillers on board on the day of the accident); or c) human error, in which somebody made a fatal mistake.  Which of those would be prevented by an extra layer of bureaucracy causing decision makers to get yet another opinion on the best way -or the permitted way – to proceed?
It seems to me that the stance the Administration should have taken from the start was one of partnership with BP.  Worry about liability and recriminations later.  First order of business is stop the leak (that’s BP’s job) and prevent the spreading oil slick from damaging the fragile wetlands along the Gulf coast (that’s the Administration’s job).  A sense of shared and urgent purpose would have gone much further than the fruitless and acrimonious talk about keeping boots on necks.  Obama’s expressions of “anger” are of the same stripe – it’s actually fairly childish, to get angry about something that is beyond your control instead of working on that bit you can control.
Toward that end, the Administration could have and should have placed every resource at the disposal of the governors of the coastal states to save the coastlines.  The real failure of the White House in this is that they haven’t done so.  Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has called for the creation of an artificial sand bar to prevent the oil from coming into the shore, but weeks after the request the Army Corps of Engineers is still studying the problem.  Where are the booms?  Where are the tankers?  I heard the retired chairman of Exxon or one of the other large oil companies relating a story about an oil spill in the Persian Gulf in the ’90’s which was as large as this.  It was cleaned up by dragooning a fleet of tankers, and loading their holds with oil and water sucked right out of the sea – they have powerful pumps that can pump in or out.  This mix was then taken to a place where it could be separated, for which the technology exists, and the sea water was pumped back out into the Gulf.  It sounds eminently sensible to me.  Why do we not have some creative souls at the White House making sure no stone is left unturned in dealing with the spill itself?
Instead, Obama tells us that his job is to make sure the American people know he is thinking about this 24-7; it’s the first thing he gets a report on in the morning and the last thing he frets over at night.  That’s just not reassuring.  Despite what Malia Obama might think, her daddy can not plug the hole.  But he can – and should – mobilize every possible resource to minimize the impact of the spill on the shoreline.
It now looks as though the spill will take some months more before it is stopped.  Mr. Obama had better be getting his people to work on Plan B – the one in which the Administration gets going on the part of this crisis that is within their authority and their control.  Less gratuitous bashing of a private company whose people are exerting superhuman efforts and sparing no expense at correcting this problem, and more competent federal action to protect the shoreline.
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