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The Oil Spill Commission, the White House, and the Next Election

Responsive Government

Whatever happens at the polls this November, President Obama will get a chance to turn the electoral tide in 2012, perhaps without the loadstone of recession around his political neck.  And, while the economy and many other issues will continue to occupy the President for the best and most obvious of reasons, it’s fair for everyone in the country to expect him to multi-task. For progressives who care about the environment, I’d suggest one critical criterion for judging the Administration: Can the President and his senior appointees stop running from the bogus claims that they stand for big, bloated, ineffective government and instead explain to the American people why government makes a vital difference to our daily lives?

Just last week we got another distressing, preliminary answer to this crucial question when the Administration stiffly dismissed the preliminary findings of staff at the bipartisan National  Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The staff working papers provide discouraging insights into White House efforts to micro-manage the frantic efforts of a phalanx of agencies, while trying to get a grip on a catastrophe incubated by Bush II. 

According to the staff report, it turns out that for the first several weeks, Coast Guard Admirals Thad Allen and Mary Landry systematically underestimated the amount of oil pouring from the broken well by more than 1,000 percent (5,000 as opposed to 60,000 barrels flowing each day). By taking an “overly casual approach” to these figures, the staff write, “the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem.” 

Even more disturbing is this finding of fact from the staff: Scientists from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told the Spill Commission staff that in late April or early May, just a few weeks after the spill began, they “wanted to make public some of NOAA’s long-term, worst-case discharge models” about where and in what quantities all that oil would wash up on Gulf Coast beaches, but that OMB staff denied their request. OMB’s review of the document delayed disclosure until July 2, 2010. As we’ve said many times before in this space, OMB has no business interfering with, much less suppressing, science, especially when disclosure could further the urgent effort to discover the best response to a real catastrophe.

In a sad coda to these unfortunate events, White House energy czar Carol Browner announced on August 4 that a flow estimation tool, the so-called “Deepwater Horizon MC252 Gulf Incident Oil Budget,” showed that “three-quarters” of the oil was “gone” from the environment. Browner and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco (who has an excellent scientific background and should know far better) insisted that the Oil Budget was a peer-reviewed model prepared by federal and independent scientists.  In fact, it was no such thing, and instead was intended as a very crude model to help cleanup crews know where to target burning, skimming, booming, or treating the spill with dispersants.

One other issue raised by the staff report highlights EPA’s failure over the years to conduct or require toxicity testing on the oil dispersants used in spills. Some 1.84 million gallons of chemical dispersants were pumped into the Gulf, and we have yet to discover their likely long-term effects on aquatic ecosystems. The Spill Commission staff concludes that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson did a respectable job of screening available brands for short-term, or “acute” toxicity, but laments her agency’s failure to study these chemicals for their long-term, or “chronic” effects well in advance of the crisis.

There’s a book to be written about the White House response to the spill, and no doubt someone will write it. In the meantime a few lessons fairly cry out. 

First, the Obama Administration has called for transparency in government, but OMB’s apparent suppression of hard data about the extent of the spill suggests the White House doesn’t always practice what it preaches. That’s been a particular problem for OMB in the past, too.

Second, the White House needs to get out of the business of micro-managing agencies. EPA and NOAA are staffed by civil servant experts who were our best hope of combating the corporate negligence on full display in the Gulf. But not if the White House handcuffs them.

Third, the Obama Administration needs to step up to the reality that it must revitalize these agencies or risk further embarrassment. Lisa Jackson is doing her best with a budget no larger in real dollars than its operating resources in 1982.  If she studies dispersants, she’ll have to drop some other, equally urgent priority. That’s nuts. From a political perspective, the White House has viewed the oil spill as a problem to be managed. But it’s also an opportunity to explain to the public why we need a vigorous government, with the resources necessary to do the job.

Responsive Government

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