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On the criticisms of Obama and BP over the Gulf oil spill

Controlled burn of oil (May 19th)

In a press conference today, President Obama defended the federal government’s handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, including his own response. He also announced a suspension of drilling in the Gulf, Virginia and the Arctic. 

Clearly, the oil spill in the Gulf has proved to be much more difficult to stop than many expected or hoped. BP did say that stopping the flow might take three months, and it could not even guarantee that. But still, every day the media is filled with tons of coverage of the spill, giving the sense that this is a crisis that is dragging on.

The delay has provided time for lots of criticisms of Obama and BP to be aired, from myriad directions. Amid all the noise, it is important to keep some essential points in mind:

  • The spill is not the result of a conspiracy between Obama and Big Oil, nor between BP and regulatory agencies. There should be a thorough, sober investigation of what exactly happened, so that we minimize the chances of future accidents in the future. But blaming shady, behind-the-scenes deals does not get to the root of the accident, and only encourages a cynical “trust no one” outlook. 
  • BP has no interest in postponing the resolution of the spill. Many of the criticisms imply this, but it makes no sense. Interior secretary Ken Salazar can talk about keeping his “boot on the neck” of BP to try to show he’s taking tough action, but the last thing BP wants to do is take its time, as every day its reputation is damaged further.
  • There is not much the federal government can do to arrive at a faster resolution. There’s no way for the government to “push aside” BP, if the leakage is not stopped soon: only the private oil industry has the expertise and capacity for addressing something this technical and unprecedented. Republicans calling this "Obama's Katrina" are only playing into the hands of those who want to stop oil production altogether.
  • We need to increase the supply of oil, and therefore offshore drilling, including deepwater drilling. Alternative supplies are not currently available. Those who were opposed to offshore drilling before the spill are trying to use it as the reason to halt such oil extraction, rather than fix the problem and move on. Obama’s temporary suspension should not be allowed to turn into a permanent stoppage.
  • There will always be risks, and we will never be able to eliminate the possibility of another spill, but that is not a reason for not continuing with drilling.There are some immediate ways that safety can be improved: for example, the British and Norway regimes are stricter. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that deepwater drilling, in particular, is inherently risky, because of the relative newness of the technology. The unfortunate reality is that only by means of accidents do we learn how to master a technology. We cannot let the oil spill allow the advocates of the precautionary principle set the criteria for whether drilling goes forward or not (by the standards of that principle, virtually nothing would proceed, because risk can rarely be totally eliminated). 
  • The oil spill does not, in itself, make passing of the Kerry-Lieberman bill necessary or inevitable. I’m against “cap and trade”, but, by all means, let’s have a thorough debate about the bill’s merits. But the spill should not be allowed to short-circuit that debate.

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