News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, May 20, 2010

La plume de la mer

Those who are still smarting over the criticism George W. Bush and his administration received over the handling of Katrina are attempting to make Obama's handling of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico  an equivalent problem.  They contend that Obama was slow to react.  What they don't say is the government is shackled in this instance.  The shackle is called BP.

The difference between the two disasters is obvious.  Katrina was a natural storm (although some conspiracy theorists say it was controlled by human powers) which the government was unprepared, unwilling, and incompetent to deal with.  The Great Oil Plume is a man-made disaster resulting from collusion between big corporations and agreeable government bureaucracies compounded by greed, negligence, and a the strong faction on the American right who deny that humankind can be the cause of and responsible for  things that despoil the planet and threaten life, human and non-human alike.

News reports keep referring to the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a spill.  It's not.  It's a spew.  It's not something that leaked or slopped over.  It is something that is furiously spewing forth toxicity, and it has been doing so for a month.

Many people do not understand why Obama is so slow to act.  I, for one, wonder why he has not acted with more decisiveness and expediency.  From an environmental standpoint, the spew has the potential of destroying the sea habitat from the Gulf to New England.  From the economic standpoint, it has the potential of destroying the fishing industry along the entire gulf and eastern seaboard.  Instead of Atlantic cod, salmon, and lobsters, those who try to get Omega-3 in their diets may be doomed to that mushy farm-raised tilapia from Indonesia. 

Oceanic scientists have joined the voices raised in impatience, asking, in effect, what the hell are you doing,  Obama?

The first problem is that all the solutions for the problem lie with the oil industry.  The second part of that problem is that the government lease managers have been gullible buddies of the oil industry.  They have been assured that the safety devices that shut down wells in case of blow-outs and other failures are redundant and fool-proof.  They have become such devout believers that they have accepted as gospel the reassurances that off-shore drilling in our technological day-and-age will never cause a major environmental crisis.  Apparently, Obama bought into this when he announced that he was going to allow off-shore drilling along the east coast. 

The scientists have stated one of the clues as to why the Obama administration is not acting more decisively.  According to The New York Times:

BP has resisted entreaties from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is really gushing from the well.

“The answer is no to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”

As the major lease-holder and operator of the drilling rig and oil well, BP has legal rights through which it can control any activities and information surrounding the disaster. Those rights apparently extend to making the rules about information on the oil slick.  A boatload full of photographers were chased away from taking pictures of the slick by the Coast Guard.  As the Coast Guard vessel pulled away, someone yelled, "It's BP's rules, not ours."

The Obama administration is stymied from swift and effective action by legal rules by which corporations, and particularly foreign corporations, operate.  In inquiring through our Congressional delegation just why the  U.S. government seems to be stuck on blame placing and not decisive action, I was told that the press needs to cut through the political propaganda and to deal with the facts.  I was told that the very same people who are claiming the loans provided to automobile companies to turn them into "Government Motors" and the passage of health care reform are takeovers of private industries by government are the ones who want government to take over an oil company.  The same ones who have worked against regulation of business and industry are the ones crying loudest that the administration has been lax in its regulation of BP. 

The Congressional source says that there is little that the government can do in terms of taking direct action, as it is dealing with entities that lie outside of its jurisdiction.  One possible measure would be for the president and congress to declare martial law, which would put the contaminated area under military control.  But BP is a foreign corporation which could not be put under the full authority of the U.S. government.   Another possibility would be to obtain a court order requiring submission to and compliance with emergency actions the government would take.  But the oil industry has managed to erect a set of laws which limit its responsibilities in case of mishaps.  And court orders would not extend to the BP company headquarters in London.

The oil spew is not Obama's Katrina.  It's his dilemma.  BP is exercising its power.  It will not even allow government officials or scientists to make an assessment of the amount of  oil spewing forth or the damage being done.   BP has said it will pay all reasonable claims against the company, but it reserves the right to decide what is reasonable.  While it has obtained the cooperation of the government in trying to manage the spew, it sets the terms of that cooperation and prevents it from obtaining and releasing information about the extent and severity of the damage being done.

Obama has to admit a defeat in this matter.  Those who oppose government oversight and regulation of the way business conducts itself have got what they want:  a prodigious mess and a government too shackled to do anything about it. 


larry kurtz said...

Economist and Minnesota Public Radio regular, Chris Farrell, has repeatedly stated that taxing polluters is the only effective assurance that government has to expedite the cleanup of environmental calamities, especially those perpetrated by multinationals.

Bankrupting BP and its co-conspirators for this ecoterrorist attack would be far too lenient.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States