Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon response - get your boots off the neck of the federal workforce

Every time I read a news story about the federal response to the oil spill, I have to cringe. Deepwater Horizon has become – for some – the lode stone around President Obama’s neck, and yet another example of government ineptitude. Or so we’re told.

The truth is, of course, much more nuanced. Deep Water Horizon is, in fact, proceeding according to plan, or as much of a plan as can be developed by a federal government with limited response capability and legal authority. In fact, hundreds of my colleagues from dozens of federal agencies are working really hard each and every day to collect as much information as possible, and to both predict the spill’s path and its effects when it comes ashore. Local university scientists are also hard at work right along side us.

For that reason, I share Anne Applebaum’s assessment that Deepwater Horizon isn’t, and shouldn’t be, comparable to the Katrina response (which I was also on the ground for in Mississippi). Where she and I part ways, however, is in both what the President should be doing about it, and what the citizenry should expect of him.

Here is the hard truth: The U.S. government does not possess a secret method for capping oil leaks. Even the combined wisdom of the Obama inner circle -- all of those Harvard economists, silver-tongued spin doctors and hardened politicos -- cannot prevent tens of thousands of tons of oil from pouring out of hole a mile beneath the ocean surface. Other than proximity to the Louisiana coast, this catastrophe has nothing in common with Hurricane Katrina: That was an unstoppable natural disaster that turned into a human tragedy because of an inadequate government response. This is just an unstoppable disaster, period. It will be a human tragedy precisely because no government response is possible.

Which leads me to a mystery: Given that he cannot stop the oil from flowing, why has President Obama decided to act as if he can? And given that he is totally reliant on BP to save the fish and the birds of the Gulf of Mexico, why has he started pretending otherwise -- why is he, in his own words, looking for someone's "ass to kick"? I suspect that there are many reasons for this recent change of rhetorical tone and that some of them are ideological. This is, of course, a president who believes that government can and should be able to solve all problems. Obama has never sounded particularly enthusiastic about the private sector either, ad some of his congressional colleagues -- the ones talking of retroactively raising the cap on BP's liability, for example, or forcing BP to pay for the lost wages of other oil companies' workers -- are downright hostile.

Three things to consider. First, given BP’s track record of oil spills in Alaska, and plant fires and explosions elsewhere, is it any wonder the President Obama, and many, many others, are skeptical that BP can indeed “fix” Deepwater Horizon? The evidence gathered by Congress prior to today’s hearings suggests not.

Second, the President s not “totally reliant on BP to save the fish and the birds of the Gulf of Mexico.” He has a U.S. fish and Wildlife Service, a NOAA Fisheries Service, the state fish and wildlife agencies of four Gulf States, and countless wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organizations to help with that phase of the attack. Plus an Army Corps of Engineers that has done monumental work on coastal habitat restoration in coastal Louisiana. The staff level experts in those agencies, if given orders to, could easily and quickly drum up plans and put them into action that would be at least as effective, if not more so, then anything BP has so far done. And they are already on the federal payroll, so there would be no contracting delays and no added expense for their salaries.

Third, the human tragedy is occurring in spite of the best government response our nation can mount. But part of that tragedy is because a private company, under current laws, made a really bad risk assessment that favored the company’s bottom line instead of the Nation’s ecological health. Federal Regulators helped them by looking the other way. The President has every right to want to “kick someone’s ass” over that, since he’s the person in charge (at least nominally) of maintaining that ecosystem health.

So, Ms. Applebaum, how about giving the federal government its due? We’re a lot more capable then you seem to think we are and we’re not going to rest Deepwater Horizon this gets made right. I’d much rather have a boss encouraging me to do that then preventing me from doing that, especially since Louisiana is my home, and those beaches are part of my personal history.

No comments: