President Obama gave his first press conference in a long time today, and the questions were almost all about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Obama’s answers were disingenuous in several ways.
First, he couldn’t resist the temptation to blame the Bush administration for the spill. Is this getting a little old, or what? Obama said:
[I]n this instance, the oil industry’s cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship with government regulators meant little or no regulation at all.
When Secretary Salazar took office, he found a Minerals and Management Service that had been plagued by corruption for years. This was the agency charged with not only providing permits but also enforcing laws governing oil drilling. And the corruption was underscored by a recent inspector general’s report that covered activity which occurred prior to 2007, a report that can only be described as appalling.
And Secretary Salazar immediately took steps to clean up that corruption. But this oil spill has made clear that more reforms are needed.
For years there’s been a scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them.
But the relationship between regulators and the industry they regulate is always “cozy.” This is true for at least two reasons. First, businessmen know far more about their businesses than regulators do. Regulators routinely defer to the superior knowledge and expertise of the regulated. Second, most regulators are young people who are planning a career in the regulated industry. A typical career path will begin with law school graduation, followed by a stint in a federal agency, followed by a highly-paid job with one of the formerly-regulated companies, representing that company before the same agency for which the regulator formerly worked. The regulator’s prime employment qualification is his or her personal relationship with those who are still at the agency–many of whom, in due course, will follow the well-trodden path into private industry.
This is not exactly a secret. The pattern holds at least as much in Democratic as in Republican administrations. For Barack Obama to pretend to be unaware of the symbiotic relationship between the regulators and the regulated is risible, and he has done nothing whatever to change the “cozy” relationship between regulators and regulated in the energy industry or any other.
Obama’s principal revisionism lay in his account of how his administration responded to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. To hear him tell it, the administration anticipated the worst from the beginning and reacted accordingly:
The day that the rig collapsed and fell to the bottom of the ocean, I had my team in the Oval Office that first day. Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred. …
Q. On April 21st, Admiral Allen tells us, the government started dispatching equipment rapidly to the gulf. And you just said, on day one you recognized the enormity of the situation. Yet, here we are 39, 40 days later, you’re still having to rush more equipment, more boom, there are still areas of the coast unprotected.
Why is it taking so long? And did you really act from day one for a worst case scenario?
OBAMA: We did.
This is pure revisionist history. A month ago, the administration’s spokesmen explained that their response was graduated as understanding of the magnitude of the spill increased over time. We told the story here and here. To sum up, we can’t do better than to quote the New York Times:
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….
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.
By Friday afternoon, she said, the Defense Department had agreed to send two large military transport planes to spray chemicals that can disperse the oil while it is still in the Gulf.
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. Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the chief Coast Guard official in charge of the response, said on April 22, after the rig sank, that the oil that was on the surface appeared to be merely residual oil from the fire, though she said it was unclear what was going on underwater. The day after, officials said that it appeared the well’s blowout preventer had kicked in and that there did not seem to be any oil leaking from the well, though they cautioned it was not a guarantee.
The truth is that the federal government’s response to the spill was slow and flat-footed. Perhaps Obama’s worst misrepresentation related to the government’s use of fire booms:
Now, when it comes to what’s happening on the surface, we’ve been much more involved in the in situ burns, in the skimming. Those have been happening more or less under our direction, and we feel comfortable about many of the steps that have been taken.
The real record with respect to “in situ burns” is quite different, as we noted here. In fact, the federal government had a plan to combat major spills in the Gulf that relied on fire booms to carry out in situ burns. But when the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred, the government realized that it did not actually possess any fire booms. It obtained one from a company in Illinois and tried to borrow others from foreign governments. Meanwhile, the oil spread. Ron Gouguet, the former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oil spill response coordinator who helped craft the government’s plan in 1994, expressed puzzlement that the plan had never been implemented and “speculated that burning could have captured 95 percent of the oil as it spilled from the well.”
So today’s press conference was just another chapter in the ongoing saga of the Obama administration’s dishonesty.
PAUL adds: The Weekly Standard’s “Scrapbook” adds an interesting footnote to the Obama administration’s response to this mess. The Department of Energy assembled a team of five top scientists to help figure out how to handle the clean-up. But one of them, physicist Jonathan Katz of Washington University, has a website on which he publishes essays on non-science topics, including (from 1999) “In Defense of Homophobia” and “Diversity Is the Last Refuge of Scoundrels.”
Upon the administration’s discovery that Katz doesn’t toe the left-liberal line on gay marriage and affirmative action, it booted him off of the team. As the Scrapbook notes, this was a political decision by an administration that promised to “take politics out of religion” and “restore science to its rightful place.”
Frankly, I don’t expect the government to act flawlessly, or even all that effectively, in the face of true disasters like an enormous flood or a major off-shore oil drilling mishap. I’d be happy with an administration that avoided rank dishonesty and the use of political litmus tests in the selection of its experts.