How to Blame Obama for the Gulf Spill

With the disappointing news that the latest attempt -- the evocatively named "top kill" -- to seal the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico has failed, political pressure on President Barack Obama has increased. It's important, though, to understand how the government failed if we want to hold the administration accountable in the right way.

Calls for the president to do more -- personified by James Carville's ranting or Maureen Dowd asking the president to emote more -- seem designed to encourage theater rather than fix the mess. The problem with these critiques is that in interactions between government and business, the government's responsibility is before-the-fact, not after. Obama can be faulted for failing to make corner-cutting BP play it safe in the Gulf, but it's not clear what more he can do to stop the leak.

The real failure here was in prevention. It was clear when Obama took office in 2009 that the Mineral Management Service, which regulates offshore oil drilling, was in desperate need of reform. At the time, I wrote a column about how the new administration could succeed at governing; one chief example was reforming the MMS, which had recently been exposed for a "culture of ethical failure." An influential transition briefing book prepared by the Center for American Progress discussed the need for reform of offshore drilling regulation. And though the president appointed Liz Birnbaum, a former congressional staffer, to head the agency, it's clear that she lacked the mandate, resources, and ability to change it. Birnbaum resigned last Thursday.

We know that BP told the government in 2008 that it could handle a spill 10 times larger than the current spill, a claim that was most certainly wrong and was alarmingly lacking in details about responding to a deep-water spill. We know that the MMS cut regulatory corners to meet a 30-day response deadline on a BP request that it could have delayed. Perhaps most damning, we know that in the weeks before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, the MMS approved a number of changes to the well, including a redesign that might have made the well more vulnerable. One of the requests was approved five minutes after it was submitted.

To liberals who hoped that, whatever the success of Obama's legislative agenda, his appointees would at least provide good governance, Deepwater Horizon is a devastating blow. Obama has already promised redoubled attention to offshore drilling: a moratorium on drilling while inspections continue, new rules separating the officials who permit drilling and those who supervise it, and legislation to ensure that BP covers the full cost of the cleanup. But despite regulatory successes in other areas -- notably, at the Department of Labor -- the liberal project of crafting an effective state has another hurdle to jump.

Now that the spill continues, though, how much blame can be placed on the White House's response? Unfortunately, the problem 5,000 meters down doesn't appear solvable with more or better resources or ideas that have yet to be tried -- indeed, the parade of failed solutions should testify to the pure technical difficulty of sealing this leak.

Some on the left, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, are advocating that the president temporarily seize control of BP in order to end the mess. Even setting aside concerns about legality, this is a bad idea. Putting government officials in charge would not add expertise, resources, or an incentive to work faster. BP is already losing money every day the leak continues as environmental damage increases and federal personnel coordinate the cleanup on BP's tab. Indeed, the best way to align the oil conglomerate's incentives with the public interest is for the president to work with Congress to eliminate the cap on the company's liability for the cost of the crisis.

While I share the frustration of these critics with BP's high-handed ways and early response to the crisis, it isn't self-evident to me what BP's engineers would do differently or better while working under government control or that there are experts who aren't being consulted.

However, concerns about BP's transparency and commitment to meeting its obligations to those affected by the spill are very real and are best addressed with subpoenas, criminal investigations, and congressional hearings. Assuming we took over, simply unwinding the government's involvement in the conglomerate could be an expensive and challenging task -- and this comes from someone who supported last year's rescue of the automobile companies.

Instead, the president needs to focus on protecting the residents of the Gulf Coast, ensuring federal resources are properly utilized and launching investigations of the disaster in order to ensure that those who are responsible -- and likely criminally negligent for this disaster -- will ultimately pay the price.

All of us, though, should recognize that the BP spill is not unique -- it's just nearby. Nigeria loses more oil every year in spills and leaks than the Gulf leak has produced. There have been 39 well blowouts in the Gulf since 2007. This reflects lax regulation and corporate risk-taking but also the fact that dwindling oil reserves are making it increasingly difficult to find reserves, sending oil companies further and further afield -- and into situations where their technical capacity to solve unexpected problems may be outstripped.

The final lesson here is that oil is decidedly not our future. Obama should permanently rescind his expansion of offshore drilling. More investment in sustainable energy and new incentives, like a cap-and-trade program, to shift our focus away from fossil fuels, must be the highlight of Obama's response.

Holding the president accountable is necessary -- by his own admission, he owns this mess. Obama should continue coordinating the cleanup, investigate and extract every penny from the stumbling corporate behemoth, and set the country on a course that will stop future disasters. While that's not as exciting as seizing BP, it will do more to prevent the next spill and accelerate this cleanup than grandstanding will.

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