The Clothes Have No Emperor

The Deepwater Horizon accident and the resulting oil leak is a tragedy on many levels, costing the lives of 11 workers, displacing hundreds of others, costing an entire region jobs and tax revenue, and beginning an environmental catastrophe that will take years to heal.  Watching the reaction of politicians, business leaders and the media has made the whole spectacle worse, if that’s possible, and prompting many to wonder, “Who is in charge?”

  • Is it Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who inelegantly announced that with his boot on the neck of BP, if they couldn’t stop the leak soon he would push them aside and do so himself (but after 2 months has still not done so)?
  • Is it White House Environment Czar Carol Browner, who told a press conference that while BP was doing the actual work, “we are in charge” (but who cannot make a decision between contradictory environmental laws)?
  • Is it the President, who criticized Salazar for using harsh words, and then said he was meeting with experts to find out “whose ass to kick” (but who thus far has been content with reorganizing a minor agency, changing its name from MMS to BOE)?
  • Is it the congressional committee members who spent an entire day yelling at BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, while continuing to ban drilling at easier locations throughout the United States?
  • Is it the news media, where in-depth investigative reporting has focused mainly on oily pelicans, the President playing golf, and the BP chief executive watching yacht races?
  • Is it BP, whose experts after 2 months cannot find a way to stop the leak, but refuse outside assistance (even from noted Hollywood oil spill experts like James Cameron and Kevin Costner)?

 Sadly, the honest answer is: no one is in charge.  Lots of politicians are wearing the clothes of power, but where is the emperor?  Who is making decisions on what technology to try next, whose expertise to ask for, or how to streamline the bureaucracy and get decisions made?  Alas, no one.

Consider that environmental laws have stopped the use of chemicals that disperse the oil slick because such “dispersants” are harmful in other ways.  At the same time, burning the oil while it’s still floating at sea has been used only very sparingly because of the impact on air quality standards.  Similarly, the sand berms that might stop the oil from reaching wetlands and beaches (requested by state governors) were stopped for weeks because that requires an extended permitting process.  Morning news shows have featured dozens of products (from specialized foam to sawdust) touted for their ability to soak up oil, all of which have been referred to a BP committee that has received over 65,000 suggestions, but apparently can’t decide whether to use any of them.

Here is the problem: spilling oil is illegal; allowing oil to wash up on shores is illegal; burning oil at sea is illegal; dumping sawdust or foam into the ocean is illegal; dumping piles of sand into the ocean without permits is illegal; and the use of large quantities of chemical dispersants is illegal.  Believe it or not, this is a common problem with our nation’s environmental laws.  You can’t have a pile of old tires or batteries on your property – and you are not allowed to dispose of them.  This contradictory mess of well-meaning regulations results in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t quandary.  In many instances it actually hurts the environment.  But in a catastrophe of this magnitude, it is inexcusable.

Someone, somewhere, needs to take charge and make it clear that the nation will do whatever it takes to stop this leak, stop the oil from reaching the shore, and clean up the mess that’s already out there.  Someone needs to make a clear decision on how and where America will get the energy upon which its economy absolutely depends.  Someone needs to decide to allow drilling where it is easier, cheaper, and fixable when something goes wrong.

We hear strong words about this every day.  But instead of making such vitally important decisions and taking whatever heat comes with it, our political leaders are rearranging the desks of minor bureaucrats and posturing to see who can appear toughest on TV.  The “never waste a crisis” mentality has provided the impetus to stop all drilling (as if that is any answer), perhaps hoping Americans will stop driving cars if the price of gasoline goes high enough.

Just to make sure that happens, Congressional leaders have slipped a massive oil tax increase into the current tax “extenders bill.”  Hidden on page 138, the proposed language would raise taxes on oil from 8 cents a barrel to 49 – an increase of 612 percent!  If nobody notices the tax increase, Americans will simply blame BP when the price of gas at the pump goes up.  And that is politics, not leadership.

Plenty of people in politics wear the clothes of power and surround themselves with the trappings of government authority.  Is there an emperor in there somewhere?  A good friend once compared Washington, D.C. to a log floating down the river with a thousand tiny ants – every one of whom thinks he’s steering.  Who really is?

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5 responses to “The Clothes Have No Emperor

  1. Perhaps the states effected need to declare an emergency and do what it takes to resolve the issue in their territorial waters, at least, and then bill BP for it. If the federal government challenges it, the states can argue that it is a domestic matter and the federal government actually has no jurisdiction. Even if they go to court over whether the state has a right to do it, at least the state took actions that saved their environment.

  2. British Petrolium is in charge because they are the entity causing work to be done. They are paying people to gather oil, they are recovering some oil and drilling along with other efforts to stop the flow.

    BP seems to be spending money like it’s not theirs, which it may not be. I haven’t heard of their insurance position but if properly insured, they may be being paid for lost product and getting reimbursed for cleanup, including the recovery process. If properly insured it’s a different game for them and a bigger problem for the US.

    For the sound bite factory and volunteers to take charge if it does not include work; those are only words. If, though, one of the southern governors really take charge and use the assets available to clean up and protect their state, a hero will emerge. Until then, the sound bite factory and chest puffing lineup will dominate the news.

    Since permission to do the right thing is likely impossible, maybe it’s time to get work done and look for forgiveness later. If any of the southern governors are vertebrates, they could take that option and simply protect their state and the people who elected them…

    • Good comment. No matter how fervently some public officials may wish otherwise, government simply cannot control everything. But it certainly has the power to make things worse.

  3. WE have a leader, his name is Barack Obama. In time of crises whether in the private or public sector, it is the elected or appointed leader that typically engages the problem solving process that we all learned in high school: 1. Problem Definition. 2. Problem Analysis. 3. Generating possible Solutions. 4. Analyzing the Solutions. 5. Selecting the best Solution(s). 6. Planning the next course of action. Please tell me where are we in this process? Where does ass kicking fit into solving this problem? And how many parents or grandparents have had to explain this phrase describing our presidents response to this disaster to their children or grandchildren? We do not want to hear about ass kicking…we want to hear about a coordinated public/private response to this problem…we want accountability…we want leadership. I believe it is clear who the emperor is, and it is disturbing to to observe him unavailingly exposed in this crisis situation.

  4. In the end, it is the American people who will decide many of the questions you raise. While the one mess is ‘out of their hands’, the political one is surely and firmly in their grasp. And the decisions they are likely to hand out in November will be among the most important and far-reaching in recent history.

    One of Ken Salazar’s boots just might wind up on someone else’s foot; its placement rendering more action than he had in mind!

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