Obama Can’t ‘Plug the Damn Hole,’ But He Can Seize the Damn Crisis

By:  Katrina vanden Heuvel
The Nation

There’s no question that the Obama Administration was slow to get on top of the BP Oil Disaster.  But not because President Obama didn’t show enough emotion or anger—a lame line pushed by too many pundits—or because this crisis has hijacked his legislative agenda (which it hasn't—yet).

Where Obama screwed up was in ceding the lead in the recovery effort to an oil company—a private corporation that was never going to see protecting the public interest as its top priority.  That decision was a blown call akin to umpire Jim Joyce’s denying Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game in the final out of the ninth--only with far more severe consequences, obviously.

Indeed given BP’s ugly record of environmental, safety, and antitrust abuses, entrusting them with this cleanup was like outsourcing human rights policy to Dick Cheney. But the problem is greater than just BP, as Michael Klare writes in The Nation, it’s “a corporate culture that favors productivity and profit over safety and environmental protection.”

There are signs in these last few days that the Administration now gets it.  President Obama seems to have a new sense of urgency—and action. There's a movement to begin criminal and civil investigations.  The President has started to  make the case for a more active and less corrupt government, and ending tax breaks for oil and gas companies.  (He should also end all Big Oil and Gas subsidies so that more governmental resources are available for R&D in renewable energy technologies.)  His call to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, and to work on higher standards for 2017, is a step toward ending our addiction to oil.

He also seems to better understand the bigger picture—that there was a systems breakdown that led to this disaster and now must be fixed.  Regulations didn’t keep pace with the risks posed by deepwater drilling; and drilling technology outpaced advances in safety equipment (if it’s too deep to fix, it’s too deep to drill).   Obama has the capacity to take on that corroded system.  Breaking up Mineral Management Services into three parts is a start, but much more needs to be done if we’re to avoid these disasters in the future.

What Obama really needs to do isn’t get mad at BP; he needs to get even on behalf of the American people—especially the workers who lost their lives, those injured, and the Gulf Coast residents who will be hugely impacted by this disaster for years to come, if not generations.  He must seize this crisis as a transformative moment to lay out a new and sane energy policy—one that will protect environmental and public health, create jobs and break our addiction to fossil fuels.  If he has the political will and courage ( the emotion this nation needs most right now), the legislation just introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders is a good starting point.

The Senator’s bill would set fuel standards at 55 miles per gallon by 2030, and prohibit drilling in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and along Florida’s gulf coastline. A moratorium on drilling in those areas was approved by Congress every year since 1982 and lapsed in 2008.

Sanders points out that his fuel efficiency standards “would eliminate the need for 3.9 million barrels of oil per day, more than double the amount we now import from Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia.”  He also argues that it is in line with what other nations are achieving—the EU currently gets forty-two miles per gallon and has set its sights on achieving 65 miles per gallon by 2020. China, Canada, Japan and South Korea all have stronger fuel economy standards than the United States.

It’s certainly no radical idea to reinstate a ban on drilling that was in place until 2008. What was radical (and reckless) was to open new areas to offshore drilling in the hope of winning over Republicans—who were never going to move—on climate change.  Like umpire Joyce after his blown call in Detroit, Obama now has a chance to reassess the facts and say, “We need to chart a new course, and I’m going to lead it.”

“If we take bold action in energy efficiency, public transportation, advanced vehicle technologies, solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal,” Senator Sanders writes, “we can transform our energy system, clean up our environment, and create millions of new jobs in the process.”

I think Sanders gets it.  The question remains: does President Obama have the cool, conviction and courage to correct his blown call?