Is It Obama’s Fault?

Tonight I was listening to Hugh Hewitt as I drove to the grocery store, and got so engrossed that I missed my exit. What was so interesting? Hugh was arguing that the Obama administration failed to respond promptly to the oil spill in the Gulf, and that its belated response was inadequate.
Is that a fair charge? Normally, I would be slow to blame government at any level for a natural (or, as here, man-made) disaster. But the basic facts are curious: the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 21, nine days ago. This was no minor event; at least 11 workers were killed. The resulting oil slick has been evident, covering many miles, for some days now. Yet the federal response lagged.
There is a basic difference between this incident and Hurricane Katrina, to which it is being compared. In the case of Katrina, the primary responsibility for disaster response lay with the local and state governments. The local response was very poor; among other things, the governor of Louisiana was slow to call out the National Guard. Here, responsibility lay with the Obama administration from the beginning. State and local governments have no jurisdiction and no ability to deal with an oil spill miles out to sea. Only the federal government can act. It didn’t, until, perhaps, it was too late.
Should more have been done, sooner? It is way too early to tell. The facts will emerge over the next several years. But the Obama administration’s response does seem to have been oddly slow. Today, efforts to contain the spill have been hampered by high winds and choppy seas.

High winds and choppy seas frustrated efforts to hold back the oil spill seeping into Louisiana’s rich fishing grounds and nesting areas Friday, and the government desperately cast about for new ideas for dealing with the nation’s biggest environmental crisis in decades. …
The seas were too rough and the winds too strong Friday to burn off the oil, suck it up effectively with skimmer vessels, or hold it in check with the miles of orange and yellow inflatable booms strung along the coast.
The floating barriers broke loose in the choppy water, and waves sent oily water lapping over them.

But what if these efforts had been made three or four days ago, when the oil slick was smaller and farther out to sea? It may turn out that the Obama administration’s mysterious slowness in swinging into action was a critical failure that resulted in far greater environmental and economic damage.
So far, the Obama administration seems to have focused more on passing the buck than on containing the oil spill. The administration has told us, over and over, that British Petroleum is responsible for the accident and ultimately will pay the bills. Perhaps so. But those of us who have worked in the civil justice system for many years are well aware of the uncertainty of such predictions. More fundamentally, it is absurd for Barack Obama and Eric Holder to claim that the damage caused by this oil spill is of little concern because someday, British Petroleum may write a number of checks. Animals will be killed, livelihoods of fishermen and others will be destroyed, beaches will be fouled, untold damage will be done. The federal government has the unique responsibility to prevent that damage, if it can. Hoping to collect damages years later is hardly an adequate substitute.
It is too early to tell how extensive the damage will be, or to what extent the Obama administration failed to carry out its most basic duties. All we can say for the moment is that serious questions have been raised.
UPDATE: Oddly, the New York Times is documenting the Obama administration’s failures:

BP officials said they did everything possible, and a review of the response suggests it may be too simplistic to place all the blame on the oil company. The federal government also had opportunities to move more quickly, but did not do so while it waited for a resolution to the spreading spill from BP, which was leasing the drilling rig that exploded in flames on April 20 and sank two days later. …
The Department of Homeland Security waited until Thursday to declare that the incident was “a spill of national significance,” and then set up a second command center in Mobile. The actions came only after the estimate of the size of the spill was increased fivefold to 5,000 barrels a day.
The delay meant that the Homeland Security Department waited until late this week to formally request a more robust response from the Department of Defense, with Ms. Napolitano acknowledging even as late as Thursday afternoon that she did not know if the Defense Department even had equipment that might be helpful.
Officials initially seemed to underestimate the threat of a leak, just as BP did last year when it told the government such an event was highly unlikely.

UPDATE: Much more on this topic, including a NOAA document that we received from a reader, here and here.

Responses