Sunday, May 30, 2010

Obama's in Charge, Except When BP Is

An April 29 President Obama promised an "all out response" to the Deepwater Horizon blowout. A month later he held a press conference on the Gulf oil catastrophe. He said "I'm fully engaged," while implying criticism is politically motivated.

I realize that this entire response effort will continue to be filtered through the typical prism of politics.

Consider his language:

a catastrophe that is causing tremendous hardship in the Gulf Coast, damaging a precious ecosystem, and one that led to the death of 11 workers who lost their lives in the initial explosion

this economic and environmental tragedy

this oil spill is an unprecedented disaster

this disaster should serve as a wake-up call

Despite his strong words, President Obama is yet to declare the spill a national emergency. But he did appoint a Commission:

Still, preventing such a catastrophe in the future will require further study and deeper reform. That's why last Friday, I also signed an executive order establishing the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Obama's co-chair sits on the board of ConocoPhillips, a joint venture partner with BP in the massive Tiber field in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a move similar to President Bush promoting shopping after 9-11, Obama encouraged people to spend money on Gulf vacations:

I should also say that Americans can help by continuing to visit the communities and beaches of the Gulf Coast.

One translation, please help minimize BP's economic damages. Another, enjoy them now because it might be a long time before you can again.

Obama deployed strong language on who's in charge:

But make no mistake: BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance.

This makes it sound like BP is coming up with all the ideas. Their ability to take shortcuts is well known.

For all the clarity President Obama provided, government actions show a muddied picture. Did the Unified Area Command (UAC) approve having fishermen sign release of liability forms or the move to consolidate legal cases in a friendly Houston court? Did the UAC wait patiently for BP to provide video needed to define the scope of the disaster? It took the government five weeks to estimate flow from the sea floor.

What about BP's move to turn down offers of international help? State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says the final decision on international offers is BP's. The Coast Guard cites BP's rules in preventing reporters from viewing oiled beaches and marshes.

Who orchestrated the false hope during top kill? Thad Allen said the well head would be cemented, while pumps sat idle.

BP officials, who along with government officials created the impression early in the day that the strategy was working, disclosed later that they had stopped pumping the night before when engineers saw that too much of the drilling fluid was escaping along with the oil.

Viewed through the prism of disaster management, the President has the authority to do more. Title 33, Section 1321 says:

(A) If a discharge, or a substantial threat of a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance from a vessel, offshore facility, or onshore facility is of such a size or character as to be a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States (including but not limited to fish, shellfish, wildlife, other natural resources, and the public and private beaches and shorelines of the United States), the President shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge or to mitigate or prevent the threat of the discharge.

(B) In carrying out this paragraph, the President may, without regard to any other provision of law governing contracting procedures or employment of personnel by the Federal Government
(i) remove or arrange for the removal of the discharge, or mitigate or prevent the substantial threat of the discharge; and
(ii) remove and, if necessary, destroy a vessel discharging, or threatening to discharge, by whatever means are available.

Instead, America has a private company rescuing itself in a disaster, a feat not seen since New Orleans hospital evacuations after Hurricane Katrina.

Oil will flow until relief wells are completed or Jacques Cousteau and Red Adair return together from the afterlife. Not counting on the pair heroically appearing, the challenge is vacuuming oil from the Gulf and sopping it up on land.

It will happen BP's way on BP's time table, despite the President's assurances. The Red team should be be excited by this private sector solution to a greed inspired disaster, only it's Blue led.

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