President Barack Obama, whose detractors are more and more gleefully comparing him to Jimmy Carter, does share one very important similarity with the oldest surviving ex-president – extremely bad luck with oil. It was the Arab oil embargo in Carter’s term which set off a disastrous chain of events leading to the worst surge of inflation in living memory, eventually sending him back to the peanut farm after only one term in Washington.
The horrifying pictures of environmental ruination down in the Gulf of Mexico, together with the sinister image of oil gushing underwater, are beginning to smear the Obama presidency similarly. His own party has turned on him, let alone the right, as if it expected him to swim down to the bottom of the sea and plug the leak by himself. This is not entirely fair, although when you compare it to the grief George Bush took for Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster, responsibility for which rested first with state and local governments, he is only getting what a president can expect to come with the territory. Our federal government has become so huge, costly, and all-pervasive that many of its citizens expect that it and their president should be able to regulate the rising and setting of the sun and turn back the tide like Superman.
Obama, for his part, has tried to blame Bush and Cheney, who supposedly set up an entirely too cozy relationship between federal regulators and the oil companies. This is lame. Setting aside that he is now one and a half years into his first term, and has certainly had time to address the regulatory culture existing in his administration, the reason that this well is so deep and difficult to deal with is because there is a moratorium on drilling in some 452 million acres of shallower federal waters going back to 1992.*
What made previously cost prohibitive deep well drilling feasible was the Deepwater Royalty Reduction Act of 1996 – signed by Bill Clinton. Under Clinton, the Mineral Management Service (MMS) consistently underestimated not only the probability of a deep water blowout, but the difficulty in dealing with it. The oil continues to spew. At the same time the requirement to test blowout preventers was relaxed, from every seven, to 14 days.
To bring this up to date, British Petroleum filed an oil spill response plan, federally required, which rosily projected an ability to recover 500,000 barrels of goo per day – not even close. MMS swallowed this whopper in 2009 during the first term of President Barack Obama.
It is not entirely fair to lay this at the president’s feet, but recent developments cast much doubt on the competency of his dealings with the disaster. First of all, using it as a pretense to revive his dead-as-a-doornail “cap and trade” environmental legislation was crude and shameless. We have a gushing oil spill of something in the area of 40,000 barrels a day, and he’s trying to use it to leverage a legislative agenda that has nothing to do with it? Is he serious?
And then there are the reports from the Gulf which indicate that a competent executive hand is not on the scene. Alabama Governor Bob Riley complains: “It’s like this huge committee down there, and every decision that we try to implement, any one person on that committee has absolute veto power.”
Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal complained similarly that after he had put sixteen barges in place that were effectively sucking up thousands of gallons of oil, the U.S. Coast Guard came along and ordered them to cease and desist. The Coast Guard, you see, could not confirm that the required life jackets and fire extinguishers were aboard the barges.
*Consult Reuters Special Report, Deepwater spills and short attention spans, June 14, for further detail.