Friday, May 28, 2010

Unnatural Disaster Is BP's, Not Obama's, Katrina (For Now)

In an interview on NBC’s Today Show this morning, BP CEO Tony Hayward stated that BP has “never in any sense sought to downplay this” disaster. This is hardly accurate, in my opinion. On May 18, Hayward said, “Everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact will be very, very modest.”

Although I doubt it, at the time, he may have even been right. However, this is the essence of “downplaying” the disaster. It sure would have sounded better if he had said something like, “While we expect that the overall environmental impact will be very, very modest, we recognize it could be worse. That is why we’re putting all available resources behind getting this thing under control.”

At least now he is calling it an “environmental catastrophe” and I had been thinking that Hayward finally appears to understand the gravity of the situation. After watching the rest of the Today Show interview, I’m not so sure.

Hawyard went on to say that BP’s response to the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill was to “launch[] the largest response effort . . . this country has ever seen to a natural disaster.”

The thing is, this isn’t a natural disaster. This is not a natural oil fountain that has run amok. The volcano in Iceland: that’s a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina (at least the storm) was a natural disaster. This is almost completely a man-made problem. Now perhaps Hayward's comment was a slip of the tongue in a stressful situation. That happens, and I can appreciate that is tough to avoid. My concern is that it was planned, in part to start lending credence to the silly notion that this is Obama’s Katrina and deflect blame (and perhaps liability). And no, it’s not.

The fact that Katrina hammered New Orleans and the rest of the coast was not President G.W. Bush’s fault. That was not in his control. The response and the organizations charged with responding were. That’s why it was his fault. Furthermore, hurricanes happened regularly. FEMA and other agencies (normally) know how to deal with these situations. And other than following Katrina, they usually have.

The oil spill, on the other hand, was BP’s fault (and their contractors). And I agree, it was the government’s fault, too. Minerals Management Service (MMS) absolutely should not get a pass on this. But recall who was in control of MMS for the vast majority of this decade. (Clue: Not Obama.) And note, unlike the response to a hurricane, the people with the technology, information, and ability to respond to this disaster are not at FEMA, MMS, or the Army Corps of Engineers. The only people who can fix this, who need to fix this, are the ones responsible in the first place: the people at BP.

Just imagine what would have happened six months ago if the President had suggested a new agency that would be trained and funded to clean up disasters like this, granted the authority to take over an oil well at the first sign of trouble, and this agency would be funded by a large tax on oil companies. You can be sure that the response would have been that the government shouldn’t be in this business because the oil companies are better trained, better prepared, and better able to respond to such problems. I guarantee it.

Yes, perhaps the federal government could have been swifter than it has been, especially with regard to protecting the coast. However, in this situation, President Obama’s primary mistake was likely listening to BP when they said they could, and would, handle the problem. I find it curious that many of the same people who often argue that government should stay out of the way of big businesses now want to lay blame at the feet of a president who did just that.

Now that the federal government and the President, personally, have taken over primary responsibility for BP’s mess, President Obama will be responsible for how fast and how well the clean-up occurs on his watch. If that goes poorly, then perhaps his response to this mess will fairly be called his Katrina. But let’s be clear: as of right now, this is Tony Hayward’s (and BP’s) Katrina.

--Josh Fershee

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