Con: Obama’s indifference to spill amounts to a toxic show of incompetence

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Andrew P. Morriss
Saturday, June 19, 2010
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Is President Obama being unfairly blamed for handling of BP oil spill?

Up to 60,000 barrels a day of oil have been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon rig since April 20, making the spill far worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

More than two months later, the federal government is just beginning to take small steps to protect us from this ongoing catastrophe. Barack Obama promised competence in his presidency. Despite his nationally televised pledge Tuesday, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to deliver.

Consider just the few of his delayed and anemic responses:

—It took nine days before Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano declared the spill to be one of “national significance,” a step necessary for the appointment of a national incident commander to direct the federal response.

—It took those same nine days before the president even spoke publicly on the growing catastrophe. Actually naming the commander took two more days; mobilizing the Louisiana National Guard took three more.

—By comparison, it took Napolitano only seven days to set up an investigation to assess blame. Apparently, assessing blame takes priority over taking action.

The level of the Obama administration’s incompetence is staggering. There were no federal stockpiles of the supplies necessary to address offshore drilling accidents, despite the virtual certainty some sort of spill would eventually occur.

The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service is in bed with the industry it supposedly regulates, regularly failing to inspect offshore rigs.

Interior appears not to have any experienced oil experts of its own—certainly none has appeared in public—leaving us dependent on BP’s analysis and technical expertise.

If the accident had happened on the first day of Obama’s term, he might credibly claim he’d inherited the mess at MMS. He can’t make the claim in mid-2010, after making offshore drilling a priority.

An inept agency that appears to be little more than a revolving door for its employees to move on to lucrative private sector work is something competent administrators address before, not after, a catastrophe.

The problems are deeper than bunglers at MMS. EPA’s delays have slowed Louisiana’s efforts to protect its coasts, with EPA unable to decide whether or not artificial sand dunes pose a greater threat than the oncoming tide of crude oil to sensitive wetlands.

At the same time it couldn’t make up its mind, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was planning to attend a Democratic Party fundraiser in New York. If the federal government with all its power and resources can’t organize the expertise it needs or focus its officials to decide if moving sand is allowed, is there anything we can trust it to do? Despite repeated claims that the spill is his top priority, Obama gives little sign that he’s paying attention to the disaster.

At his May 27 news conference, Obama didn’t know whether or not he had fired the MMS director (he hadn’t).

If the spill was on his top 10 list, he’d know that and more. Indeed, if the president was treating this as the serious problem it is, he’d spend less time golfing (April 26, May 8), vacationing (April 23-24), touring Illinois farms and factories (April 28), telling jokes at celebrity dinners (May 1, May 3), and hanging out with sports figures (April 26, May 17, May 26) and more time mobilizing resources to address the crisis.

It would be unreasonable to expect President Obama to personally plug the oil leak. It isn’t unreasonable to expect that long before the 60-day mark he would have convened the heads of major oil companies, university petroleum engineering departments, and anyone with useful expertise, asked them to devise solutions, and found the resources necessary to implement the plans they devised.

Andrew P. Morriss is the H. Ross & Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business Professor at the University of Illinois. Readers may write him at the Institute for Government and Public Affairs, 504 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Champaign, Ill. 61820; e-mail: morriss@law.uiuc.edu.

Last updated: 2:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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