No Obama Takeover of Spill Response May 26, 2010Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: Andrew Revkin, BP, David Gergen, Deepwater Horizon, James Carville, Obama, Offshore Drilling, Oil, Oil Spill, Thad Allen
On Sunday, Interior Secretary Salazar stepped up the rhetoric, and the long-awaited administration takeover of the spill response seemed inevitable:
“If we find that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately.“
However, on Monday, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who is the point person for the federal response, flat out rejected the notion of pushing BP aside:
“To push BP out of the way would raise a question, to replace them with what? They just need to do their job.” He added that the federal government has neither the expertise nor equipment to stop a deepwater leak.
And in response to Salazar’s previous statement?
“That’s more of a metaphor.”
So that’s it. No takeover planned. The government reportedly conferred with another unnamed oil company to check that BPs actions to date had been exhaustive. That company said that in their place, they would follow “the same sequence of events.” And that was that.
Much of the country is calling for the White House to take over. The pleas for presidential leadership are growing louder, from both Democrats and Republicans. Heavy hitters like James Carville have been overtly critical. Just yesterday, without even searching, I stumbled across pieces by David Gergen and Andrew Revkin demanding the White House step in.
The President has the legal authority to take over. In fact, he may even have the obligation to take over. Yet he has not.
The President’s supreme reluctance to take the reins is very telling.
To me, Obama’s refusal to take over is every bit as frightening as yesterday’s unconfirmed reports that the casing finally failed and new leaks have opened up in the seabed. It says that this situation is actually hopeless.
I’ve been trying to figure out the President’s response. Let me play devil’s advocate here for a minute:
Let us pretend, as economists do, that everyone acts rationally in their own self-interest. What if BP is doing everything they can? Because what if that everything is really nothing? The only established solution to a deepwater gusher is drilling a relief well. That takes 3 months. Every other “containment method” has seemed like political theater…what if it is?
Think about it. BP chose to put off other containment plans (top kill, top hat, junk shot etc) to try siphoning a bit of the oil off. No amount of siphoning can stop the leak because, at best, it just reduces the amount of escaping oil. Why would they delay viable containment methods in favor of siphoning if those other methods had any real chance of success? Siphoning produces a small amount of marketable oil, but that oil is certainly not more valuable to them than would be preventing more months of this spill. So maybe trying to minimize the amount of oil released is literally their best option while they wait for the relief well.
Barack Obama is a good politician, by which I mean he understands politics. Good politicians know how to preserve their political careers. Yet shirking such a broad call for leadership would seem to be a political liability.
Again, let’s assume that he acts in his own rational self-interest. Let’s also assume that in a national emergency, POTUS has access to the best information available – the stuff we don’t hear. If there was any hope of stopping this leak before the relief well, or that better leadership could help end this crisis sooner, don’t you think the President would get more involved? If there were any hope of success, Obama should dive right in; saving the day tends to help a political career.
So why would the President stay on the sidelines? Look at it from his perspective. Being “in bed with Big Oil” is not a good enough answer. This would be a unique opportunity to get out of bed without any political sacrifice; he could trade industry support for that of a very grateful nation. He could win bipartisan praise and then move his legislative agenda.
Isn’t it the simplest answer that there is just no alternative to the relief well? The President’s actions would make sense if there are no real options left, and no amount of leadership can stop this spill for at least two more months. Everything going on in the meantime could be a feeble attempt to distract us, to make it look like they’re trying. But there are no decisions to be made. The only thing the leader of the spill response gets is more blame.
In this scenario, the President’s best personal course of action would be to dispatch resources and personnel (as he has done) but to remain at an arm’s distance, even while the country calls for his involvement. This might not be the noblest response, but it would at least make some sense. Is this an improper application of Occam’s razor?
Now, BP has certainly mishandled the response. But what have our complaints really been about? Transparency. Honesty. Downplaying the scope of the devastation. Obviously they are suppressing information and lying for the selfish sake of legal liability. Yet barring accusations of improper booming and discussion of the nuclear option, which is both risky and politically unlikely, I don’t think I’ve heard any technical complaints about BP’s actual containment response. Except, you know, that everything has failed. But maybe it was never expected to succeed.
“They’re exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak,” Commandant Allen said Monday.
What if they’re not lying? What if there just isn’t anything else that can be done?
Pat Campbell, a blowout control expert working in BP’s Houston command center, is remarkably confident in their upcoming efforts. I am not.
Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.