How Obama failed in the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the most common indictments of him are wrong, and overlook his biggest errors.

Summary:  Obama has failed to adequately cope with several aspects of the Deepwater Horizon crisis, probably due to his inexperience as a leader and politician.  His knowledge of the law and campaigning ill-serve him as President.  This is an opinion piece, my views based on the 12 previous posts about the disaster.  (most posts on the FM website are 100 words of my views on top of 500 words extracted from an expert’s article)

President Obama has made mistakes both of omission and commission in the Deepwater Horizon crisis.  These illustrate the effects of his inexperience, a man overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his office.

  1. Failure to install senior executives committed to reform regulation and reduce corruption. People are policy.
  2. Leaving BP in charge of the drilling operations was reasonable; letting them run the clean-up operations was dumb
  3. Failure to immediately commission a high-level investigation, forcing BP to release data
  4. Failure to push NOAA and EPA after it became clear that their responses were slow and inadequate

(1)  Failure to install senior executives committed to reform regulation and reduce corruption. People are policy.

Obama’s most powerful tool is appointing senior officials.  Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s actions during his 15 months in office showed little interest in reform, and zero interest in cleaning house in the Minerals Management Service, already well-known for its lax regulation and corruption.  As shown by numerous reports, described in  Interior Dept. OIG assails ‘culture of ethical failure’ (from the Government Documents Blog).

(2)  Leaving BP in charge of the drilling operations was reasonable.  Letting BP run the clean-up operations was dumb

BP has the technical resources to run the offshore drilling operations, at both the Deepwater Horizon site and the two rigs drilling relief wells.  Allowing them to do so under close supervision seems reasonable, as BP has every incentive to stop the spill as soon as possible.

Allowing BP to run the clean-up operations is indefensible.  They have reason to minimize costs and conceal the extent of the spill and resulting damage.  Nor do they have any special expertise in conducting either the offshore cleanup or the onshore cleanup and rescue operations.  These should have been run by the relevant government agencies, with contracts to useful private and NGO organizations.  With the bills sent to BP, who could refuse to pay (a PR nightmare) — with collection after proving negligence caused the spill (negating the liability cap).

The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (first adopted 1968) is clear on the procedure to be followed:  the relevant government agencies are to direct all operations.  This is explicit in the federal government’s National Response Team Unified Command Technical Assistance Document (the guidebook for these incidents):

  • 40 CFR part 300.120 (a) and 40 CFR part 300.135(a) describe the general duties and responsibilities of the OSC.  The OSC directs response efforts and coordinates all other efforts at the scene of a discharge or release.
  • 40 CFR part 300.305(d)(2) requires the OSC to direct response operations during an oil discharge to navigable waters of the U.S. that pose a substantial threat to public health and welfare.
  • 40 CFR part 300.415(c) authorizes the OSC to determine the appropriate removal actions and, in carrying out a response to a release, remove or arrange for removal of a release, direct and monitor all Federal, state and private actions, and remove or destroy a vessel releasing a hazardous substance.
  • 40 CFR part 300.415(c)(2) authorizes the OSC to direct all Federal, state, or private party actions to remove the hazardous substances if the OSC determines that a release poses a substantial threat to public health and welfare.

CFR is the Code of Federal Regulations.  OSC is the On-Scene Coordinator, a Federal or State official.

(3)  Failure to immediately commission a high-level investigation, forcing BP to release data

Failure to immediately investigate the cause of the disaster shows a stunning degree of incompetence.  The Justice Department initiated its probe on June 1, 41 days after the explosion.  This allowed time for BP to hide or destroy evidence or for evidence to be lost in the course of subsequent operations.   It also allowed other organizations to get involved, resulting in duplicated effort and probably confused contrary results.

As a side-effect, incompetence squared, is that BP has successfully denied government requests for information about the spill.  For example, from the Coast Guard and the FLow Rate Technical Group.  That should have prompted fast and severe reactions.

(4)  Failure to push NOAA and EPA after it became clear that their responses were slow and inadequate

NOAA’s actions were slow after the April 20 explosion.

  • They stayed with their estimate that the spill rate was 5,000 bpd long after it was clearly far too low (it was their estimate, not BP’s).
  • Only after weeks passed did they send scientists to study the spill.  They announced deployment of the research vessel Gordon Gunter on May 15, and later the Thomas Jefferson.  Scientists with NGO’s could have been called in, and private vessels rented.

Two of the many descriptions of EPA’s slow response to the disaster:

However, it’s false that the Jones Act has slowed the Gulf response.  For details see “Oil Spill, Foreign Help and the Jones Act“, FactCheck, 23 June 2010.

Posts about the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the FM website

  1. Valuable background information about oil slicks: excerpts from Science, 2 May 2010
  2. Important background information about the oil spill (an example of real journalism), 2 May 2010
  3. Sources of reliable information about the Gulf Oil Spill, 4 May 2010
  4. We know what happened at the Deepwater Horizon rig. Here’s why it happened., 5 May 2010
  5. We’re at a key point in the Gulf Oil spill, while urban legends breed and circulate among the credulous, 7 May 2010
  6. About the invisible oil spill – and the chemicals that made it disappear, 14 May 2010
  7. About the long-term effect of giant oil spills, 17 May 2010
  8. It’s a national emergency, so an opportunity to watch much of America get hysterical, 27 May 2010
  9. Science: “Gulf Spill Big But Not Enormous, Yet”, 29 May 2010
  10. Let’s seal the Gulf oil well by using atomic weapons!, 29 May 2010
  11. Important update about the Gulf oil spill, 8 June 2010
  12. The new estimate of the Deepwater Horizon spill rate (bad news), 11 June 2010

Posts about Obama, candidate and President

  1. Is Obama running for the office of Chief Shaman?, 6 June 2008 — Weirdness from our next President.
  2. Does America need a charismatic President?, 15 July 2008
  3. More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series), 16 July 2008 — About charisma:  know it before you buy it!
  4. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008 — At what point does criticism of Obama’s charisma and rhetoric become criticism of leadership itself — and blind faith in technocratic solutions so loved by policy nerds?
  5. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008 — Obama’s statement about America may be the simple truth; this may be why so many find it disturbing.
  6. America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008
  7. About Obama’s coronation – wisdom from Fred, 23 January 2009
  8. What past President does Obama most closely resemble?, 31 May 2009
  9. Obama knows how to lead America by exploiting our fears, 5 June 2009
  10. Obama is just like Jack Kennedy!, 13 October 2009
  11. Stand by for the Obama implosion, 9 December 2009
  12. Thoughts about President Obama, 17 December 2009
  13. More about President Obama, a decoration to the White House for the next 4 years, 18 December 2009
  14. Dumbest headline of the week, 1 March 2010

Plus:  Another amateur hour performance by Team Obama:  appointing an attorney with no training or experience in the mining or energy sectors to run the Minerals Management Agency — Gushing but vague DOI press release; New York Times article.

For all posts on this topic, see the FM reference page Obama, his administration and policies.

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