David Hammer and Rebecca Mowbray of the New Orleans Times-Picayune have done a great job of reporting the big-government (i.e., Democrat) side of settlement negotiations in advance of the February 27 trial regarding the Gulf oil spill. They have also tried to present the BP side of the story, but given that Louisiana legitimately bore the brunt to the damages from the spill, one can forgive their residual sense of hurt from BP’s actions. So let us try to effect a countervailing (probably biased) view to further narrow the field.
Why might I be considered biased? Because I admit that I think the Obama administration is largely responsible for the dysfunctional nature of the well-containment efforts once the Obama administration took control of those efforts with the appointment of a national incident commander (NIC), Admiral Thad Allen.
The original intent (sound anti-big government to any of you?) of the Oil Pollution Act was to let the leaseholder (BP) try to contain any spills on its own without government interference up to a threshold value, at which point the presumption would be that the leaseholder was in over its head and the public interest would prevail over that of the leaseholder. We the public do not want to see pictures of oiled birds and dead dolphins!
And that presents the administration with its biggest problem: being found grossly negligent for the well-containment efforts under its exclusive control. Where do we the public turn when the federal government proves itself incompetent? Are there really that many Americans who trust civilian bureaucrats to be competent? The military enjoys a well-deserved reputation for competence, but that comes from dealing with situations that cannot be influenced by lobbyists and crony capitalists. Even such a dyed-in-the-wool liberal as James Carville does not trust the competence of government bureaucrats, hence his loud and repeated calls to send in the military.
And the people of Louisiana remember who it was that saved them from their own corrupt elected Democrat politicians such as Mayor Ray Nagin during Hurricane Katrina. Admiral Allen and his Coast Guard helicopter crews saved over 20,000 civilians in the aftermath of that disaster. General Russel Honore was another legitimate star of the rescue efforts. Who can forget his timeless question to the media: “Are you stuck on stupid?”
The problem for the military was that even these superstars knew essentially nothing about containing a well blowout under a mile of water. In particular — i.e., regarding the depth of water — this blowout was unique. And it therefore required originality, a virtue in short supply in the best of circumstances. Under the micromanaging of a White House committed solely to politics and full of Ivy-League lawyers and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the job was practically impossible without outside intervention.
Thankfully, the public demanded results, and so, in what had become a Big Government vs. Big Oil struggle, the political anti-big government party, the Republicans, started to emerge. And they publicly reprised Gen. Honore’s role of challenging stupidity. It is no accident that Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and Placquemines Parish President Bobby Nunguesser (R-LA) started to register in the public mind.
Therein lies the administration’s current dilemma: can they risk the trial becoming a political debate over the competence of government bureaucrats vs. the private sector? That is a debate they are guaranteed to lose based on the miserable performance of the National Incident Command. (See also my previous AT article, “Public Safety: Voluntary Industry Standards vs. Government Regulation“). Can they risk putting Steven “Solyndra” Chu on the stand as an exemplar of government competence? Or how about Richard Garwin, who, as part of the Scientific Advisory Team, could produce notes in the hand of Enrico Fermi (an appeal to authority, not science?) but who actually fought against the well integrity test that permanently stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico at precisely 2:23:47 p.m. CDT on July 15, 2010? Talk about being on the wrong side of history!
Uhlmann believes it would be hard for the states and feds to prove even $5 billion in environmental damage.
So with BP having long ago put up $20B under Kenneth Feinberg to cover less than $10B in actual and $5B environmental damages, the question will arise: “How much pain should Big Oil absorb to pay for the sins of Big Government, which will then be passed along to consumers as either high gasoline prices and/or increased unemployment?” And that is a question Obama desperately wants to avoid!
Those who live by politics will die by politics (figuratively speaking — I do not need to have to deal with the Secret Service). The most rueful part of this tragedy is the fate of Admiral Allen, a true American hero for his actions during Katrina, who got caught between an incompetent chain of command under Obama and his duty to the public as the commandant of the United States Coast Guard.