Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obama to BP: Co-own it

At a press conference on Monday, in a response to the growing chorus of discontent from the media, and from many in the beleaguered Gulf region, Thad Allen, the Coast Guard incident commander in the Gulf (and to this point as close to an oil-spill czar of this unfolding tragedy as we’re likely to get), said in clear terms what they needed to hear, as opposed to what they wanted to hear. It was, by proxy, a White House response to the call for action on the BP oil spill — and one that made the most logistical sense, if not the most favorable press.

Responding at the White House to a question about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's shot at the British superconglomerate the day before (when Salazar threatened to take BP out of the loop of resolving the crisis), Allen said, “I’m the national incident commander, and right now the relationship with BP is the way to move forward. To push BP out of the way would raise the question: To replace them with what? They just need to do their job."

Allen also told the reporters that, according to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, although the federal government retains full oversight, the polluter is responsible for paying for the clean-up, securing the equipment needed to perform the clean-up, and paying for the damage done. “This is not policy,” he said. “This is a command-and-control structure. It’s actually contained in the Code of Federal Regulations that implements the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. So there are actually clear definitions.”

Allen’s statements effectively frustrated the growing calls for the BP spill to be ended with a John Wayne bigfoot nanny-state solution — an idea that that might be more emotionally satisfying, but which in practical terms solves nothing. Allen seemed to say this is not a moment of blindly throwing federal money and materiel into easing the crisis in the Gulf.

Some lawmakers have even proposed the idea of using the U.S. military to end the spill. The presumption that military might can be leveraged to end this environmental crisis is plainly the wrong one; you can prove that by just reversing the players in a hypothetical: Would environmentalists, engineers and oil-industry scientists be the resource of first resort to fight an asymmetrical war in a foreign country? Reflexively throwing the armed forces at a problem is no guarantee of a solution.

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Politically and even morally, the White House’s present inclination to compel BP to take the practical and operational lead in ending a crisis of its own making recognizes common sense: when an unprecedented situation faces a specific, highly specialized industry, that industry should be the first and primary responder.

Oil is what BP does for its bottom line. This isn’t a question of resources; in terms of ready cash, BP’s at least as liquid than the government is for purposes of dealing with this crisis, and probably more. It’s a question of expertise and experience in the field, and BP’s experience trumps the government’s.

And BP is under its own self-imposed pressure. The loss of millions of gallons of the product BP sells means the company has a decided financial interest — among others — in fixing the situation. BP’s stock has been drifting south since shortly after the spill occurred; even for a company with $240 billion in revenue last year, the financial incentive for BP’s fixing this catastrophe of business, the environment and public relations ASAP is self-evident.

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The White House no doubt made another calculation, political but real just the same. The administration recognizes that the moment the federal government fully wades ashore like MacArthur at Leyte Gulf in 1944, pantlegs coated with heavy crude, the federal government will be perceived (by the public and sure as hell by the media) as owning the problem, and by extension owning the responsibility to find a solution.

To say that the United States (hunkering down behind two wars and a deeply sour domestic economy) is out of its depth in this field is an understatement.

President Obama volunteered to fully shoulder the task of fixing this mess. He said as much Thursday in the White House. “I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down … there shouldn’t be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged. And I’m fully engaged.”

But even now, as Thad Allen said days earlier, the United States’ role is that of a monitor with teeth. Day by day, as the White House has ratcheted up the rhetorical pressure on BP, it’s shown that enforcer’s role can be effective. One of the things a “fully engaged” president and administration can do is make damn sure the one that can do the job is fully engaged in getting it done.

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More of a problem for the Obama administration is addressing the cultural relationships between the oil industry and the federal government, not just the government now under Obama but the fed going back years. One example of that cozy relationship and its consequences: the apparent corruption within the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged with collection of oil and gas royalties, and with oversight of the oil industry in matters of deep-water drilling.

In a new report by the U.S. Inspector General, MMS officials are the big players in a tale of gross mismanagement: The Inspector General’s report found that MMS brass took gifts, cash, drugs, vacations and even tickets to sporting events from several oil companies in the past.

The fact of government and the oil industry being in bed together — sometimes literally — compounds the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico with what could be a crisis of confidence in the reformist rhetoric of the Obama administration.

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The president himself is a party to that relationship: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $3.5 million of BP money has made its way into the campaigns of various candidates by BP over the last 20 years, with the Obama campaign receiving the largest single donation (just over $77,000).

As Obama holds BP’s feet to the fire, and the public does the same to him — 53 percent of Americans give him a poor rating for his handling of the crisis, according to a new USA Today/Gallup Poll — the president’s proven he’s ready to throw the weight of the government into ending this slow and deadly hydrocarbon bleed into the pristine bays and estuaries along the Gulf of Mexico.

But the government’s ongoing dalliance with Big Oil, and Obama’s own previous one, underscore a fundamental problem with federal agencies forced to rely on the industries that are their responsibility to monitor, or with government itself getting tough with the industry that oils its gears:

You can’t be the watchdog when you’re sleeping with the one you're supposed to watch.

Image credits: Thad Allen: Via MASNBC. MacArthur at Leyte, 1944: Public domain.

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