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Pro: The vaunted free market caused this mess and must clean it up

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Rafael Reuveny
June 19, 2010
EDITORíS NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Is President Obama being unfairly blamed for handling of BP oil spill?

From the onset of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, conservatives have criticized President Obama for not solving the disaster created by their beloved free market.


Republican leaders, whose usual mantra is to decry government involvement, claim Obama has devoted too little attention to the problem, ignored fantastic solutions, not visited the affected region enough, and acted too cool and impassionate.


In fact, the presidentís instincts are right on target. As he reiterated in his Tuesday night speech, Obama is squarely focused on the source of the problem.


BP caused the environmental disaster, and the law of the land says the polluter pays. There are liability issues at stake as BP lawyers are undoubtedly looking for ways to cast outside blame and deny compensation. By ensuring BP sets up a fund which will be controlled by an independent third party, the bulk of the damages can go to the Gulf Coast workers and businesses that will be most affected over the long run.


Unlike other oil-producing countries, our government does not have the technical expertise and equipment to handle an oil spill. It certainly doesnít make sense for the government or BP to ignore solutions, fantastic or not, that could stop the spill. The crisis is taking an enormous toll on BPís stock price, funds and survivability. There is no magic bullet. The only real solution is a relief well, which takes time.


Obama has visited the Gulf region four times; the issue is constantly on his agenda. But he is the leader of the free world, and this tragedy may, unfortunately, be eclipsed by even more pressing issues.


And most people covet a leader who keeps his or her cool during times of crises, of which this country currently has more than a few.


No rest for the weary, Obama is now hearing it from the Left. Liberal pundits have chastised the president for ignoring earlier estimates about the size of the catastrophe, not cracking down on the corrupt Mineral Management Services agency immediately upon taking office, and allowing BP to extract oil using its Atlantis oil rig.


Much of the liberal argument is Monday-morning quarterbacking. In 2009, Obama promised to undo the cozy governmentoil industry link. But the economy was in free-fall. Too-big-to-fail companies were collapsing, jobs were being lost at a staggering rate, we were fighting two wars and millions of Americans had no health insurance. Itís luxuriously easy to attack the presidentís priorities with the aid of 20-20 hindsight while alternately criticizing him for tackling too many issues at once.


Allowing BP to continue extracting oil keeps the company afloat so it can pay to stop the spill, clean up the oil, and compensate all damaged parties.


The president had no choice but to rely on BPís data on the size of the oil spill. Unfortunately, this is how the regulatory framework operates in the United States, particularly in the oil industry. By allowing the free market to govern itself, all information comes from companies that have an incentive to hide or distort information.


Obama has handled this disastrous situation with great care and a comprehensive view of the big picture. Oil is a finite resource, and it should be gratifying to all Americans to have a president who understands the importance of planning for a future that cannot be reliant on fossil fuels.


Unfortunately, the presidentís control in such circumstances will always be limited due to the influence-peddling abilities the U.S. Supreme Court handed big business, and, particularly, oil companies when they blocked a ban on corporate political spending. This greasy mess is now bigger than all of us.


Rafael Reuveny is a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington. Readers may write to him at SPEA, Indiana University, 1315 E. Tenth St., Bloomington, Ind 47405.

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