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Crying Over Spilt Oil

Environment, National Issues

This post may upset some of my conservative friends, and I have delayed writing it because of some self-agonizing as well as personal issues of time availability. We have to recognize that as tempting as it is to characterize our opponents as idiots or evil conspirators, this is rarely if ever true. More than that, it is a mistake that often leads to underestimating them. Many of us intensely dislike the Obama administration, often for good reason, but they are not fools nor evil.

What happened was that due to an unwise overreaction to perceived missteps by the Bush administration, all Republicans were tarred with a broad brush and the Democrats ended up not only with the presidency but also with Congressional supermajorities. This latter is the real problem. A key element of governmental checks and balances was lost and, as Lord Acton wisely observed, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." The corruption I'm talking about is ideological and legislative corruption, not personal.

With this power comes arrogance and complacency. The former engendered the Tea Party movement as an instinctive attempt to re-establish some check and balance, as well as a degree of voter disenchantment. The latter is a major factor in the Deep Water Horizon tragedy of errors playing out in the Gulf of Mexico. Make no mistake, this is an environmental catastrophe that will eventually eclipse everything in the last 100 years. There are credible predictions that this thing will not be contained until the end of the year.The oil will pollute major parts of the Gulf from Louisiana through Florida and most likely the Atlantic seaboard up the Carolina coast before it's done.

Oil in sea water forms a heavier-than-water tar that sinks to the bottom, destroying or blocking necessary nutrients and devastating coral reefs. The beaches are the least of the problems as they can be cleaned. The sea bottom in the Gulf will suffer damage that could take decades to recover. The loss of some oil-soaked Brown Pelicans, while tragic and visually heart-rending, is another relatively minor issue. The good news is that Nature will eventually clean it all up or work around it. Prince William Sound has been virtually wiped clean by the action of the sea, and wildlife is pretty much back to normal. The same will happen in the Gulf, but it will probably take even longer because of the massive size of this thing, despite our President's assurances.

O.K., whose fault is it? Obviously, British Petroleum--BP, a London-based corporate monster--bears the brunt of the blame. An incompent and corrupted (there's that word again!) federal Materials Management Service (MMS) bureaucracy also bears major responsibility for being in the pockets of major oil companies and not providing competent oversight. The Obama administration, who woefully underestimated the magnitude and potential impact of this accident, delayed significant reaction and even today is doing little more than jawboning and promising. (They're very good at promises.)

I do not see a conspiracy here to make the situation worse in order to push through environmental legislation like a carbon tax, although there may be some opportunism at play. I think this was simply a very large error in judgement by the Obama administration to rely solely on their (former) friends at BP to solve the problem. BP obviously has no clue how to stop the oil flow at that depth and pressure--over 2,200 pounds per square inch--and is playing this solely by ear. The government is now well behind and in an impossible position to catch up.

Congress of course let it all happen and also went along with BP and the Obama administration in downplaying and ludicrously underestimating the magnitude of this disaster. Now of course there is a frantic scramble to hold hearings and beat up on oil companies in general. That'll fix it!

Perhaps there was some consideration of BP's generous political contributions leading to an over-reliance on BP to "fix the problem." That's really irrelevent at this point. There was an obvious policy of "hands off and let BP fix it" until recently, when it is really too late to do much of anything to contain this thing.

Even today, there is significant help available, and has been since the first week after the explosion, via foreign expertise from Norway, the Dutch and Belgians, and probably others. They were and are being prevented from supplying real expertise, ships and equipment because of an antiquated union-pandering law, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, which forbids any foreign ships or crew in U.S. waters or ports.

For example, three days after the explosion the Dutch government offered to assist the U.S. with ships equipped with oil-skimming booms and expertise in building sand barriers to protect the Gulf coast. The Obama administration official response was, "Thanks, but no, thanks." Seven weeks later, we accepted the booms but not the ships. The administration also finally accepted advisors to help with sand barriers, but again no ships allowed. There are also reports of domestically-available skimmer boats (foreign-owned) and other oil-barriers available but all turned down, apparently in deference to BP.

Lurking in the background of all this is the question: why are we drilling oil wells 5000 feet under water? This has to be terrifically expensive for the oil companies, besides being very dangerous and an incredibly difficult environment in which to work in the event of a problem.  I don't pretend to know all the reasons and regulations behind this, but I don't think it was BP's or anyone else's choice. Drilling on land, say in Alaska, is much cheaper, safer and more easily controlled in the event of an accident. Even drilling in shallow water on the Continental Shelf would entail less risk and expense. I detect an environmentalist influence here, but really don't know all the specifics. I suspect no-one does.

The thrust of much of the rhetoric is to "wean us from our obsession with fossil fuels." (I even read a suggestion to "nationalize BP," ignoring the fact that it is British.) O.K., what do we use instead? Wind and solar, despite all the subsidies and incentives, account for less than 1% of our energy needs and display an inconvenient unreliability. (The sun goes down and the wind doesn't always blow.) Ethanol is a joke and an environmental disaster in its own right. Electric propulsion requires power generating capacity which means....power plants and fossil fuels. Oh, shucks! Or we could import more ... . Ditto.

The only solution in the near term--I know, it's not all that near--is domestic oil obtained in the safest and most economical way possible, drilling on land. We should have been doing this all along instead of fooling around far out to sea. The Deepwater Horizon deep-sea drilling platform and its like are certainly not the answer.

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