Oil and Water

The BP disaster has revealed a problem that is every bit as challenging as cleaning up the Gulf: how to reconcile two opposing visions of how government should work.

The ability of nature to frustrate the will of man was already on full display in the Gulf of Mexico following the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig when the ability of man to frustrate and embarrass himself came into focus as well. Apparently, the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency charged with regulating oil and gas operations on the outer continental shelf, believed that despite the catastrophic environmental disaster unfolding before it, the time was still right to drill, baby, drill. Even as oil gushed from the ocean floor, the MMS issued seventeen new permits and nineteen environmental waivers for offshore operations. This action was so tone-deaf that MMS director Elizabeth Birnbaum was forced to resign, and she was soon followed by associate director Chris Oynes. The house has been cleaned. Unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t.

In a strange political season that has given rise to the tea party movement and energized a wave of conservative voters, the calamity in the Gulf raises one of the most volatile issues in American politics: What kind of government do we want? A government, as Rick Perry is fond of saying, that secures the border and delivers the mail and then gets out of the way? Or a government that recognizes that powerful interest groups have the ability to undermine the public interest to their own benefit and enters the fray to level the playing field? Big government or small? The argument goes back to the respective visions of America—an industrial and commercial powerhouse or a nation of yeoman farmers—as seen by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the late eighteenth century. These competing visions continue to dominate American politics more than two hundred years later.

The massive spill has revealed a problem that reaches beyond the Gulf Coast. It is one more instance in which regulatory agencies like the MMS have failed to protect the public. One does not have to have a long memory: the lack of stringent enforcement of safety laws by the Mine Safety and Health Administration before the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, in West Virginia; the ability of Toyota to persuade regulators to limit or avoid safety recalls and rules concerning uncontrolled acceleration; the warning by the Government Accountability Office that the Food and Drug Administration was not doing enough to protect the national food supply; the failure of the FDA to ensure the quality of children’s medications made by Johnson & Johnson; and, of course, the ineptness of financial regulators who didn’t foresee and couldn’t mitigate the subprime mortgage crisis and the resulting economic meltdown.

An increasing number of people have lost faith in the government’s ability to solve problems, and the continuing saga of the BP oil spill has emerged as a metaphor for the times. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is not, as Perry so rashly said, an act of God. It is incontrovertibly an act of man—of ineffectual regulators and corner-cutting oil companies. Both were charged with the duty of making certain that oil production in an ecologically sensitive area could proceed without harm to the environment. Both failed miserably. BP, for example, claimed in its permitting process that it was capable of containing a spill ten times as large as the current one. As for the MMS, it uses a lot of high-sounding words on its website, stating that its “oversight and regulatory framework ensure production and drilling are done in an environmentally responsible manner, and done safely.” A more accurate statement would be “ MMS oversight ensures that oil companies can do whatever they want to do without fear of consequences.”

The BP debacle could have profound political implications in an election year. Barack Obama’s critics have already charged that the oil spill is his Hurricane Katrina. There are a number of apt comparisons with that terrible storm: It is another disaster afflicting our neighbors in Louisiana; it is another indication that government is incapable of responding to a crisis; and it is another occasion to doubt the judgment of a president. Obama, like George W. Bush in 2005, was slow to appreciate the seriousness of the crisis and the political damage it could inflict on his presidency. But there is a significant difference between the Katrina and Deepwater Horizon disasters. Getting food and water to New Orleans after Katrina was the responsibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The responsibility for responding to an oil spill belongs to the industry, thanks to a law passed after the Exxon Valdez spill, in 1989. The federal government has neither the legal standing nor the equipment nor the know-how to repair a damaged well. Unfortunately, BP, which has the legal standing and the equipment, doesn’t seem to possess the know-how.

In addition to its failure to stop the oil from spewing out of the well, BP must depend on twenty-year-old technology like booms, skimmers, and dispersants to clean up the water and protect the coast. BP is using a dispersant called Corexit, which some marine toxicologists have warned will kill shrimp eggs and larvae. It may also be lethal to the microbes that naturally break down oil. Local fishermen who are unable to ply their trade have been hired by BP to clean up the oil, but toxicity levels in South Louisiana are already so high that workers have reported suffering from headaches and nausea. The fishermen told the Los Angeles Times that the company did not provide protective gear. BP is in control of the cleanup, but the government can still use its powers of persuasion.

So what has the government done? The same thing it did after 9/11: reorganize itself. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in May a plan to break up the MMS into three divisions, one to supervise the leasing of federal lands for oil and gas operations, another to oversee safety and environmental protection, and a third to collect and audit royalty payments. But I doubt that any of this will make a difference.

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