State of the Planet

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Obama’s Oil Speech: What Wasn’t Said

I was eagerly anticipating President Obama’s speech last night and very much hoping it would mark a true turning point in the administration’s handling of the crisis.  However, like many others, I was sorely disappointed.  While the speech used plenty of combative terms (“battle plan”, “siege”) it was completely devoid of specifics, both for responding to the crisis and for how to ensure this doesn’t happen again.


The speech missed the mark in several areas:

Criticism of BP: The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and subsequent eruption of the undersea well didn’t just happen, they were a result of both mistakes and shocking negligence on behalf of BP, which repeatedly chose to cut corners and discount safety warnings.  A public rebuke would not only have been appropriate but also, more importantly, would constitute a warning to all oil companies that specific types of behavior will not be tolerated.  Further, next to nothing was said about BP’s grave mishandling of the response, including the deliberate lowballing of the estimated amount of the leak, which is now thought to be 12 times greater than BP originally claimed.

Finally, there’s the obvious elephant in the room: BP was playing a very dangerous game at the expense of the US public.  What is painfully obvious now is that they had neither the expertise nor will to properly respond to a disaster of this magnitude.   They were performing a remarkable feat of engineering in which the dangers are readily apparent (pumping a highly pressurized, highly explosive substance from a mile below the ocean).  In this situation, it’s not that hard to imagine something could go horribly wrong.  Yet BP didn’t have anything close to the ability to properly respond.  Why not say so?  In addition to being satisfying, such comments from the President would strongly indicate to oil companies that changes are necessary.  This seems even more salient in light of yesterday’s revelation that all the major oil companies have essentially been using the same pathetic excuse for a Gulf of Mexico oil spill response plan.

Deepwater Horizon’s oil rig on fire:

Source: Seatle Times
Source: Seattle Times

Specific actions to take charge of the response: Criticism only goes so far, however.  More alarming, especially for the people of the Gulf, was that Obama did not use the opportunity to take more assertive control over the response.  Responding to a disaster of this magnitude is exceedingly complex, and the administration has made some good efforts.  Still, though, as yesterday’s New York Times reported, the response has been chaotic and inefficient.  A presidential address from the oval office, a setting which all but oozes power, should have included an acknowledgment of these problems, a pledge to take firmer control and an announcement of specific actions to improve the situation.  Similarly, there was no mention of specifics for the restoration of the coast, other than the formation of a “plan”, to be completed “as soon as possible”.  If my livelihood had been destroyed by the oil spill, I wouldn’t find this terribly reassuring.

From the early days of the spill, when BP simply refused to allow government scientists appropriate access to calculate the flow rate from the exploded well, there has been a woeful lack of access to the region.  This pattern has continued throughout the duration of the spill, and routinely both scientists and media have had difficulty gaining entry to relevant areas.  It would have been so easy for Obama to announce that, henceforth, BP would have no ability to restrict access and further, that every effort would be made to allow scientists and media to have complete freedom to move about the region in order to supply the American public with information about all dimensions of the disaster.

Policy changes: The spill provides an ideal opportunity to take concrete steps to transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels. It also shows the flaw in the argument that the goal of US energy policy should simply be to decrease reliance on foreign oil. Even putting aside concerns about global warming, the spill demonstrates the great risks involved in oil production, whether domestic or foreign. The oil companies maintain that they have outstanding safety records and that the scale of this disaster is unprecedented. The fact is, though, that drilling and processing oil is inherently risky. What’s not well known is that during the two months that oil has been spewing from the bottom of the ocean in the Gulf, there have been at least two other oil-related spills, one from the trans-Alaska pipeline and one in Utah, just outside of Salt Lake City.

In last night’s speech, Obama noted the importance of transitioning towards clean energy, and he specifically mentioned concepts like solar and wind power and improved efficiency. Yet, again, there were no specifics about what form an energy policy could take, nor were there any commitments or goals laid out. In fact, one of the few concrete pledges was a commitment to “look at ideas and approaches from either party” and “give them a fair hearing”, which I find neither inspiriting nor terribly reassuring.

In the past, Obama has proven that his low-key, drama-free leadership style is both effective and powerful. Time will tell whether this middle of the road style will properly address the Gulf oil spill. What seems obvious though, is that last night’s speech was a missed opportunity to dramatically change the game.

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