The Government's Catastrophic Response to the Oil Disaster

Washington's reaction is causing greater damage than the event itself.

Incompetence has turned the Gulf oil tragedy into “Obama’s Katrina.” As more and more startling facts emerge we are finding almost criminal ineptness by Washington compounded by BP’s almost criminal negligence. As with many crises, Washington’s reactions cause greater damage than the event itself. Yet lurking in the mess are the extreme environmentalists staffing the Obama Administration with their declared agenda of shutting down all offshore oil drilling. The Sierra Club has bragged about how it helped shut down all new coal generating electricity plants. Other environmentalists are still happy that the Three Mile Island crisis succeeded in ending all new nuclear-generating power plants. Preventing new offshore oil drilling in Alaska is another of their primary objectives.  

Now CNN reports that almost all new drilling activity has been suspended for over two months. This includes shallow wells in less than 500 feet of water—despite Obama’s statement that such wells would not be affected by his orders to cease all deep-water (over 1,000 feet) drilling. After thousands of deep-water wells have been drilled successfully without spills, the Interior Department, under Secretary Ken Salazar, has so delayed permitting and continuing operations as to possibly bring financial ruin to countless smaller companies. It would be similar to shutting down all airlines after a single crash. It may be that Salazar and his gang are just so ignorant of business that they think the government can simply shut down the super-sophisticated flow of supplies and men and then later restart it like flipping an electric light switch. It’s already estimated that it will take two years or longer to get Gulf production back to its pre-suspension levels. Meanwhile, deep-water drilling rigs—which cost over half a million dollars per day to operate—are being sent away from the Gulf to work in Africa and Asia where they are wanted. It will take months, if not years, to bring them back. Some 100,000 high-paying jobs are now at risk. Already the number of deep-water rigs has dropped from 42 to 19.

Most startling is the news that large boat skimmers could have sucked up much of the spill and cleansed it long before the oil reached shore. At the outset of the spill the Dutch offered skimmer boats with experienced crews that could have handled most of the spill. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in “The Top Five Bottlenecks”:

Three days after the accident, the Dutch government offered advanced skimming equipment capable of sucking up oiled water, separating out most of the oil, and returning the cleaner water to the Gulf. But citing discharge regulations that demand that 99.9985 percent of the returned water is oil-free, the EPA initially turned down the offer. A month into the crisis, the EPA backed off those regulations, and the Dutch equipment was airlifted to the Gulf.

A giant Taiwanese oil skimming ship, The A Whale, is only now working on the spill. It can process 500,000 barrels of oily seawater per day, but it also needed the same waiver from the EPA which, expressed in another way, limits discharged water to trace amounts of less than 15 parts-per-million of oil residue. It also needed a waiver from the Jones Act, which prevents the use of specialized foreign ships from the North Sea oil fields because they use non-American crews. Previously, the skimmers had to return to port to offload almost pure seawater each time they filled up with water.  

In his 6 month moratorium on deep-drilling, President Obama said he was setting up a special commission to issue a report on the safety of drilling. He’s certainly not rushing. It took almost two months to appoint the “experts,” yet they won’t even meet until mid-July. Also none of them are oil engineers; they are scientists and environmentalists. The Wall Street Journal detailed their backgrounds in its report, “The Antidrilling Commission.” We also know that Obama and Salazar lied when they claimed that the six month shutdown had been supported by their panel of experts.

In Europe the laws governing oil spills are distinct from ours. They are prepared for spills and handle them as national emergencies to be quickly resolved. In Congress, however, the extreme environmentalists are now urging impossibly severe “punishment” conditions and sky high uninsurable liability on individual companies that will almost certainly shutter all medium-sized oil companies, since they would be unable to acquire the needed insurance. In America it has been smaller companies which have led technological discoveries, such as the horizontal fracking which has now made natural gas abundant. Yet Obama’s energy advisor, Carol Brawner, says non-major oil companies could be excluded from Gulf drilling when they, of necessity, are much more careful since spills could ruin them and put them out of business.

In conclusion:

• We have learned that the oil could have been skimmed early on so that very little—if any—would have reached shore.

• BP failed to follow established industry procedures and made several consecutive major errors which caused the blowout. This was not a reason to stop all drilling.

• Revamping Minerals Management in the middle of a crisis has created a catastrophe in the Gulf that permitted the government to shut down continuing operations, even in the shallow waters where Obama previously said drilling would still be allowed.

Wanting—or creating—scarcity has always been a part of the leftist agenda, on the theory that scarcities create the need for government allocation and control. One of the greatest threats of the current situation is that environmental extremists will use it as a justification to further their misguided agenda.

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. For 17 years, he was a commentator for the Voice of America. In the 1980s, he owned and operated a small oil drilling partnership in Pennsylvania. This column first appeared at Reason.com.





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