Saturday, June 19, 2010

Musings on the BP Oil Spill; Two Months Hence

First, I'll stipulate that the oil spill, itself, cannot be fairly be laid at President Obama's doorstep; this was clearly a disaster not of his making. The decrepit, inept bureaucracies that oversee off-shore drilling far predate this administration, and several before it. However, this incident, once again, underscores government's poor management record in any number of areas, and throughout this crisis it has continued to perform below expectations.

That said, a key part of any president's job is crisis management, and the exhibition of strong leadership during a given crisis. At the moment that rig exploded experts knew the magnitude of the disaster that faced the Gulf, yet the President seemed oddly disengaged; as though he assumed that it would just fix itself. As days, then weeks passed, it became increasingly evident that BP, and Transocean, who built and maintained the rig, were clueless as to how to solve the problem. The United States has vast technological resources and expertise at its disposal, and the President has the authority to tap these resources in emergency situations. This was clearly an emergency.

The fact is that the governors of the Gulf states have been far more proactive during this crisis than has The White House, but, again, have been met with resistance from the Federal Government:
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has spent the past week and half fighting to get working barges to begin vacuuming crude oil out of his state's oil-soaked waters. By Thursday morning, against the governor's wishes, those barges still were sitting idle, even as more oil flowed toward the Louisiana shore.

"It's the most frustrating thing," the Republican governor told ABC News while visiting Buras, La. "Literally, [Wednesday] morning we found out that they were halting all of these barges."

Sixteen barges sat stationary Thursday, although they had been sucking up thousands of gallons of BP's oil as recently as Tuesday. Workers in hazmat suits and gas masks pumped the oil out of the Louisiana waters and into steel tanks. It was a homegrown idea that seemed to be effective at collecting the thick gunk.

So why stop now?

"The Coast Guard came and shut them down," Jindal said. "You got men on the barges in the oil, and they have been told by the Coast Guard, 'Cease and desist. Stop sucking up that oil.'"

A Coast Guard representative told ABC News that it shares the same goal as the governor.

"We are all in this together. The enemy is the oil," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dan Lauer.

But the Coast Guard ordered the stoppage because of reasons that Jindal found frustrating. The Coast Guard needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.

The governor said he didn't have the authority to overrule the Coast Guard's decision, though he said he tried to reach the White House to raise his concerns.

"They promised us they were going to get it done as quickly as possible," he said. But "every time you talk to someone different at the Coast Guard, you get a different answer."

Sadly, this just happened this week.

Our government's response has been the typical inter-agency squabbling, bureaucratic paralysis, compounded by a profound lack of leadership from the top. Two months ago, the challange was containment, now we are looking at clean-up, which is vastly more difficult and expensive.

Yes, a pipe spewing oil a mile underwater is no small task; it's an enormous one. It's also not an insoluable problem, and I simply cannot believe that, given the proper leadership, various experts could have been assembled to devise a workable plan.

To date, no plan is evident.

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