Jens 'n' Frens
Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.

"A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures."
  -- Daniel Webster

Wednesday, June 09, 2010 :::

There was a good run-down of the oil spill in the Sunday New York Times (no, I'm not running on Internet time right now).

There isn't a lot of context to indicate how serious various issues should have been considered ex ante. This isn't meant as a criticism of the piece -- a newspaper article can't make its readers experts -- but there are a lot of examples given of regulations being waived and of lack of clarity of responsibility, and I assume that if the Times profiled any other deep-water rig, a lot of those same issues would be there, but without the same consequences.

You can't get the whole picture of the regulations involved and the processes involved in waiving them from one article, but the article implies that many of these waivers are routine. There could be good reasons for this, and we don't want the system to be too rigid, but having discretionary waivers as a matter of course would seem to be a good way to exacerbate the problems of regulatory capture and as sign that the regulations need to be changed -- either the regulations need to be written in such a way that they don't apply in circumstances in which they are currently unenforced, or they need to be enforced more broadly. Again, though, it's hard for a layman to know to what degree this can reasonably be fixed.

Parts of the federal response are described toward the end of the article:
Under intense media scrutiny, at least a dozen federal agencies have taken part in the spill response, making decision-making slow, conflicted and confused, as they sought to apply numerous federal statutes.

In one stark example of government disputes, internal e-mail messages from the minerals agency obtained by The Times reveal a heated debate over whether to ignore some federal environmental laws about gas emissions in an effort to speed the drilling of relief wells.

One agency official, Michael Tolbert, warned colleagues on April 24 that emissions of nitrous oxide from the well were “pretty far over the exemption level,” an issue that his colleague Tommy Broussard said could result in “BP wasting time” on environmental safeguards in a way that would be “completely stupid.”

But a third colleague, Elizabeth Peuler, intervened to demand that the agency take “no shortcuts.”

“Not even for this one,” she said. “Perhaps even especially for this one.”
I'm not the first to comment that to call this "Obama's Katrina" is fair mostly in the sense that Bush was overblamed for Katrina and its aftermath. In each case, the initial incident was in no way the President's fault, and to the extent mistakes were made in the aftermath, it was largely because bureaucracies can't operate perfectly in a crisis.

Which isn't to say there weren't mistakes made in both cases (unless the minerals agency has no legal discretion in this case, the aforementioned Ms. Peuler should be talked to). Obama's rhetoric has not seemed to me to acknowledge the limitations of government power; it strikes me as a mistake (both politically and practically) for him to give the impression that all he has to do is kick a little ass and ensure that BP knows what he thinks of them and the well will be magically sealed. He should also avoid telling us how obsessed he is with this and then be seen playing golf. The problem, by the way, is not the golf so much as the encouragement of the myth that he just has to want the well capped hard enough followed by the demonstration that he's not spending all of his time wanting the well capped. The administration knew early on that this was likely to be a big, long-lived problem; I would think that would have been enough to encourage him to lower public expectations.

Beyond that, the administration seems to have been slow to react to certain issues:
Debates over the speed — or lack thereof — of the government response have also played out in Louisiana, where state officials spent much of May repeatedly seeking permission from the federal government to construct up to 90 miles of sand barriers to prevent oil from reaching the wetlands.

For three weeks, as the giant slick crept closer to shore, officials from the White House, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environmental Protection Agency debated the best approach.

They ultimately approved the use of only one barrier, called a berm, to be paid for by BP.

Comparing the federal government’s response to “telling a drowning man to wait,” Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana asked: If one berm is safe, then why not the 23 others that he had requested? Slowly, the federal government approved more berms.

From the start, BP had played down the extent of the problem in miscalculating the rate of the leak and in denying the existence of underwater oil plumes. By deferring to the company, federal officials underestimated the problem they were facing and thus what was needed to respond to it.

It took more than a week after the explosion for the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, to declare, on April 29, “a spill of national significance” a legal categorization that was needed before certain federal assistance could be authorized.
Of course, just because something bad is happening, that doesn't mean Jindal's proposal will make things better, and it should not have been automatically rubber-stamped. But he should have been given an expedited timeline for probable approval with the understanding that allowing a somewhat destructive, imperfect response may be the best option and that time was a factor; my understanding is that the Louisiana government simply heard nothing for weeks. The feds didn't need to help here so much as get out of the way.

This new story is also troubling:
Three days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dutch government offered to help.

It was willing to provide ships outfitted with oil-skimming booms, and it proposed a plan for building sand barriers to protect sensitive marshlands.

The response from the Obama administration and BP, which are coordinating the cleanup: “The embassy got a nice letter from the administration that said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” said Geert Visser, consul general for the Netherlands in Houston.
Again, Obama should do everything he can while emphasizing that he can't just wish a cap into place. In fact, the ultimate solution will inevitably come principally from the same companies that are responsible for the problem, not from the public sector.

::: posted by Steven at 11:33 PM

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Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.

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