Monday, May 31, 2010

The Obama Administration's Response to the BP Disaster

BP’s Gulf Blowout is now clearly an environmental disaster with effects to be felt long term in the Gulf and possibly along the eastern seaboard. No one really knows how much has been released, or will be released, where and how crude will wash or be blown ashore, how easy or hard to clean up (past spills, such as Valdez, Alaska are not promising), the existence and extent of an underwater plume, and how devastating the effects on the underwater, sea bed, and marine environ will be.

Louisiana’s shrinking and endangered wetlands are at even greater risk from the blowout.

Mild or apocalyptic, take your pick, but every day now increases the risk of apocalyptic. The earth is more resilient than we often give it credit for; the environment will recover in the long term, however long that may be.
Presidents often get credit they don’t deserve, and the blame when it’s not their fault. If the economy is booming, they are the beneficiaries, and if it’s in the tank, then they get the blame. That’s a political reality.

Thus, I would not normally comment on the Obama Administration’s response to the BP Gulf Blowout. It’s BP’s fault, or Transocean’s fault, or Halliburton’s fault, or Cameron’s fault, or probably jointly and severally all of them. History tells us that human and mechanical errors are rampant in a disaster of this nature. The federal government through its regulatory agencies may have partial responsibility, although immunity may exist for the government. The lawyers will have a field day. Criminal charges may also be brought.

The Gulf Blowout is no more President Obama’s fault than Katrina was President Bush’s responsibility.

However, by the third day of the media showing the Katrina tragedy, squalor, lawlessness, and pathos of New Orleans, the media and liberals were dumping on Bush for not doing anything. Federal laws limit what the federal government can do in initially responding to an emergency such as Katrina; the initial legal burden is placed on the state and local government.

The public didn’t care. The Bush administration failed to respond. The President accrued the onus for being “out of it.”

But now it’s Day 42 and the media is starting to question the response of the Obama Administration.

It’s becoming reminiscent of the advent of Ted Koppel, Nightline, and Day XXX of the Iran Hostage Crisis.

We need to split the spill into two areas: the blowout/continuous discharge and the cleanup effort.

As recently retired Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen has acknowledged, the government lacks the expertise, personnel and resources to cap the hole. That perforce is BP’s responsibility and duty. They have the personnel, resources, and expertise. Thus, the federal government has to defer to them.
Regardless of whatever else may be said about BP, they have the greatest self-interest of all the parties in plugging the well. No matter the ecological tragedy, every day is a corporate disaster for BP. The days of the execs, responsible parties, and probably of BP as we know it, are numbered. BP is ‘toast.”

That, in turn, creates a feeling of impotence on the part of the President and his Administration. His frustration was apparent in his statement: “Just plug the damn hole.”

The official response therefore has become one of official outrage, if not invective:

Statements of Secretary of the Interior include:

”We will keep our boot on their neck until the job gets done.”

One of Senator Obama’s campaign messages was that he would be a President of competence and not diffidence. The premise of the first 15 months in office of his Administration is that the government can get the job done. The government is the answer to our problems.

The government has to stand by and watch – hardly the message he wants to send, even if it’s not his fault.

The government cannot stop the leak. Only BP, nature, or time can stop the discharge.

The government, our government, the Obama government has no control over the Gulf gusher.

How ironic that an Administration whose basic tenet is that government is the answer to our problems has to stand by and defer to a private enterprise, a foreign oil company at that, to resolve a problem it created.

The Administration faces a conundrum.

It must appear in control, but to be in control when the response efforts are a series of failures will destroy the veneer of competence the President has to possess to succeed.

Indeed, the President emphasized that the federal government was in control every step of the way and that BP could only do what the government allowed or told it do. However, BP has shown that’s not the case because it is using a chemical dispersant, Corexit, that EPA has requested it not use.

That’s politics.

The government cannot stop the leak, but it might be able to contain it.

The failure is with the response effort.

The Obama Administration is as derelict in its response as was the Bush Administration with Katrina.

For whatever reason, and some day we will know why, the Obama Administration was at best slow in marshalling resources to contain the oil. It dithered on incinerating the oil on the surface, whether chemical dispersants should be used, allowing Louisiana to build sand berms to hold back the oil, and marshalling equipment onshore.

Louisiana Governor Jindal’s plaintive plea for Corps of Engineers permission to build the barriers hit a nerve with Americans. (Sidebar - what a contrast between Governor Jindal and his predecessor Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans during Katrina). The Corps was supposedly doing an EIS on the sand berms, which is like Nero fiddling while Rome burnt.

To President Obama’s credit, he ordered the Corps to approve the Governor’s requests. The military is flying in containment booms from Alaska and chemical dispersants, but as with Katrina, this response effort is not getting public attention.

However, as every little oil bar washes ashore, the failure of the government is apparent.

That too is political reality, and President Obama’s burden.

But that doesn’t end our story.

I find more appalling the Obama Administration response to the severe flooding of Nashville, Tennessee, the Cumberland River flooding which inundated downtown Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, and the Opryland Hotel. 28 died in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee in Nashville alone.

President Obama almost completely ignored the flooding, except to declare a Disaster Order. It was as though nothing happened.

Disaster response is not a forte of this Administration.

The late LAPD Police Chief Daryl Gates and the LAPD were highly respected for their competence in policing LA. Then came the Rodney King riots, the looting, and the total loss of control over the City. Gates was through as Chief. He talked the talk, but could not walk the walk when called upon.

Either the Obama Administration changes its response efforts, or it will fail.

That too is political reality, and President Obama’s burden.

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