Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Obama and the Oil Spill

Posted by butalidnl on 5 June 2010

President Obama is not doing all he can to fight the oil spill in the Gulf; he is doing all he can to make sure that BP is doing all it can to fight the oil spill. And there is a difference between the two. BP is always going to find ways to minimize its expenses in connection to oil spill. Everything boils down to a cost/benefit calculation; and the costs of fully responding to the spill are a lot more than the cost of facing up to legal claims because of the spill. So, BP’s beancounters (cost accountants) would advice its board not to do certain things, because it will be cheaper to simply wait for the legal claims than to address that problem.
Anderson Cooper at Louisiana marshes
Take the case of the oil spill which is clearly in the marshes in Louisiana, as illustrated by Anderson Cooper’s visit there (see left). The oil is clearly there, and despite the media making a fuss about it, BP seems to have simply left it untouched. Why would BP leave it untouched? Well, BP’s beancounters probably figured that the cost of cleaning this up would be much higher than what they would pay if the state of Louisiana filed a law suit; thus, the order comes out – leave that piece of the spill be, and let the government sue them.
There is really nothing the government can do to force BP to clean up that marsh. At least, nothing until the government decides to take on its responsibility to protect the people and the environment.
The government has the responsibility to protect people and the environment; BP has the responsibility to pay for any damage it caused. This does not cover the same things. BP will pay for any damage, but this will first have to go through the legal process AFTER the damage has been done. The government is the one who should make sure that the damage is not done.
Fire Department
The oil spill can be compared to a fire raging in a city. The city doesn’t have a fire department, so it is forced to rely on the owners of the affected buildings, who have a private fire department. The fire rages far beyond the capacity of that private fire department, but the government just sits back and says that “its responsibility is to “sit on the neck” of the private fire fighters to see to it that it does it job. Logical? Hell no! But this is just what the government is doing with the oil spill.

Well, I suppose that we should first question the fact that the city got built, but that the government didn’t set up a fire department, or that buildings were not required to install basic fire safety equipment.  With all the wells that have been set up in the Gulf, this accident is something that was just waiting to happen. It was irresponsible for the US government not to have set up a “fire department” capability to respond to oil leaks.

BP’s job is to address the oil spill at the lowest cost to its shareholders. Of course, it skimps on paying affected fishermen and other businesses. Of course, it will do the absolute minimum to clean up the marshes and even the beaches. Of course, it won’t go about building sand barriers and such to stop the oil. These things cost money. BP knows it could get away with not paying for all of them; so, why do it? Let there be damage first before paying; there is no money to be saved by prevention. And even perhaps some of the damage will not get passed on to them.

The govenment’s job (or it should be its job) is to prevent damage to people and the environment. This is not BP’s  job, and it never should have been made so. The government’s role is to address the spill itself, but also to prevent damage from being done. I’m not saying that it will be more efficient per se; but at least it is part of the job description of government. They will be held accountable for damage prevention, in a way that BP will not, and cannot be.

Of course, having said that the government should do the job of clean-up does not mean that BP would not pay for it. Let the government do it, and let BP pay for it (and not only “legitimate claims, but reimburse the government for the work, with a fine put on top of it).

What Should Obama Do?
What should Obama do then? Well, the first thing he should do is to assume direct responsibility for the spill, instead of merely the responsibility of pressuring BP. The government: federal, state and local should get the power to do what they can to stop the spill from polluting their beaches, marshland, etc. The federal government especially should take care of the spill BEFORE it reaches land; making sure that it does not reach land.

The US Coast Guard has already requested that Dutch and Norwegian ships that specialize in skimming the oil while it is in the high seas come to help. They should reach the Gulf sometime next week. But those ships are not enough; anyone else with skimming equipment should be mobilized – there are enough offers for help from other countries. The government should not assume that the US has most of the resources to deal with the spill. It is quite obvious already that they don’t. So, it should request help from other countries, instead of being perpetually worried about the cost. Would a fire department worry about the cost of a neighboring fire department that comes to its aid? So, the US government should make the clean-up effort a truly international undertaking.

I think Obama should just stop being mad on TV, or always scolding BP. This doesn’t help. He should just simply take over control of the clean-up, clear and simple.

And after this crisis is over, the US should take steps to form its own “fire department” – a US oil spill rapid action force should be formed. And the oil rig owners in the Gulf should be assessed for its services – based on the number of rigs they have in the Gulf. The US should also come up with agreements with other countries to cooperate in oil clean-up operations; much the same way that fire departments agree to help each other.

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