One of the more idiotic memes floating around of late is that the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is somehow “Obama’s Katrina.” Liberal NY Times columnist Paul Krugman first raised the specter as a joke, after which right-wing loon Rush Limbaugh followed suit…albeit without the sense of irony. The case for “Obama’s Katrina” is predicated on two factors: the location of the incident and the allegedly slow and disinterested response of Obama and the Federal government. The first reason is purely superficial and not really an analytic point. The second is the more serious charge that the Federal government did not marshal the resources in time.
The New York Times ran a version of this second argument on Friday. However, despite the title suggesting dallying by the Feds, the author offers very little evidence that DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano or anybody else in the Federal government acted too late. The article claims that Napolitano waited several days before declaring it a “spill of national significance” and requesting assistance from the Department of Defense. That much may be true, but it doesn’t mean the Federal government wasn’t bringing all its appropriate resources to bear at the right time. The Federal government was following oil spill protocol, which places the onus on the private company and, if necessary, the Coast Guard to investigate possible leaks and develop a plan. That’s exactly what happened from day one – especially as the first priority was to evacuate all of the personnel from the rig.
For a detailed account of the events out at sea after the explosion, see the Salty Cajun, a solidly conservative blog on life along the coastal region of South Louisiana. In short, the Coast Guard was there immediately. The Coast Guard helped send the robots down to search for leaks. The Coast Guard helped BP send the robot down to try and turn off the blowout valve. When that failed, and two leaks were discovered, the Coast Guard estimated (with blogger help) that the leak was much greater than originally imagined. At that point Federal, state, local and volunteer support set up booms to protect shoreline whenever possible. BP’s efforts to run a controlled burn failed in light of the choppy waters. And the latest tactic – chemical dispersants – has been tried by the Navy – to limited effect.
The Feds followed the protocol, letting BP lead the process until they could no longer control things. Perhaps the protocol is insufficient and the Feds should overrule BP at the first possibility of a leak. No doubt the Feds should have required BP to use an acoustic switch, which could have shut off the valve remotely. The 2005 energy bill ensured that these $500,000 devices would not be required because…existing methods are “failsafe.” Hmmm.
So Katrina is just not the appropriate political parallel.
But there is another incident that resonates more closely with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Three Mile Island. Both involved controversial modes of domestic energy production. Both resulted in a cascade of failures. And, most importantly, both had enormous policy consequences down the road.
The partial core meltdown at TMI in 1979 terrorized much of central Pennsylvania. I remember it as my first news memory. I was five years old and lived in New Jersey at the time. I knew that Pennsylvania was the next state over and I worried that something terrible was happening there – and was going to affect us too. The series of industrial failures and human errors galvanized public opinion against nuclear power. Though domestic energy companies had already stopped constructing new plants because of cost, the TMI incident solidified popular opposition to nuclear power.
And here is where the parallel comes into play. President Carter had vowed to move the country off of oil and coal. Nuclear power was, initially, part of the solution. But the incredibly high cost of nuclear plant production had begun to foreclose on this option. TMI’s near meltdown convinced Carter to move away from domestic nukes for good. Following Presidents, including Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes made little more than tepid gestures toward reigniting nuclear power. Cost was always the primary driver, but environmental concerns (raised again after 9/11 and the possibility of terrorism at a nuke plant) prevented the public from coalescing behind nuclear power.
As we all know, the current oil spill comes on the heels of a major debate over offshore oil drilling. The Obama Administration reluctantly agreed to expanded offshore drilling just three weeks before Deepwater Horizon exploded. “Drill Baby Drill” has already been widely mocked with the derisive chant “Spill Baby Spill.” Despite some brave talk, expanded offshore oil drilling is almost certainly out of the picture now.
And so we have Obama’s Three Mile Island moment. A series of private company errors – many of them enabled by lax enforcement of safety and environmental protection rules – leads to a crisis. And as in 1979, the real effect is likely the end of Obama’s offshore oil drilling gesture.
As for our energy needs? We are back to square one…just as we were in 1979.