- - Saturday, February 16, 2013

President Obama has been seeing off loyal retainers from his first term, and recently he bid adieu to Steven Chu, his in-house Nobel Laureate and secretary of energy. In doing so, the president praised Mr. Chu for “designing a cap to plug a hole in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico when nobody else could figure it out.” This was in reference to the 2010 BP oil spill known as “Deepwater Horizon.” The problem is, Mr. Chu did not design the containment cap; the hardworking engineers of BP and its private sector contractors did that, working night and day from the moment of the disaster. Any energy business that had expertise offered to help, and many did. 

Mr. Chu is a brilliant man and has done the world a service by his work in optical physics, including his Nobel prize work involving light and atoms. Still, Mr. Obama giving him credit for the cap fits perfectly with the central conceit of liberalism in general, and the dangerous path down which Mr. Obama is leading the nation.

When the president shouted out, “You did not build that” during the latest campaign, he was echoing a central tenet of the liberal credo: Government — not free citizens or the businesses or works they create — is responsible for the progress that Americans have achieved over the last two centuries. Government can set and enforce rules that enable individuals and businesses to take risks, innovate, invest, succeed and fail. Yet government itself does not build or create wealth; even those things it does build only come from revenues it coercively takes from individuals and businesses to be spent on what politicians deem popular at the moment.

At every turn, , however, the president and his minions never miss an opportunity or a crisis to convince Americans that it is government that will take care of, comfort and embrace them. That suffocating embrace is now a multi-trillion-dollar debt that will crush our children and their children. Moreover, a growing segment of the population has suspended disbelief to conclude that somehow, some way, the promises of politicians will take care of them. We simply cannot afford the president’s affection, something he is working hard with other people’s money and effort to try to build.

The false hubris concerning Mr. Chu’s involvement with the well cap that eventually stopped the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico also highlights how the administration always seeks to foster the notion that government must oversee all business ventures or breakthroughs in order to ensure the welfare of the citizenry — even when it isn’t true. Their view is that, absent hands-on “command and control” by government, high risk private sector activities such as offshore energy development will not be conducted in a “safe” manner. It never occurs to them that spilling oil is the last thing a business wants to do. BP has set aside about $37 billion to pay for the spill, which is about $7,550 per barrel of oil that was valued at about $85 per barrel at the time of the spill. Only the government could conclude their help is needed to keep businesses from making that sort of trade-off.

While regulation is necessary, the heavy-handed approach undertaken in the case of the Gulf incident intervention reveals a policy that has costly implications concerning both the safety and economic viability of domestic ventures. In the case of the cap that was designed by industry engineers, the successful outcome was actually delayed by government overseers, such as Mr. Chu, who had little expertise in such matters. Moreover, other technical recommendations by government regulators that were thankfully rebutted by knowledgeable industry experts posed significant environmental threats and made the problem worse.

While it might be tempting to ask, “What difference does it make?” (the question concerning the veracity of government claims that has been recently popularized by another outgoing Cabinet official) the underlying policy bent poses a highly dangerous threat to critical energy, environment and economic issues impacting all Americans. 

This same perspective was responsible for the unjustified drilling moratorium imposed by the outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that has cost the nation jobs and environmentally preferred domestic production. The “boot on the neck” approach he bragged about only serves to drive private investment overseas, increase the need for energy imports, decrease government revenues at a time of severe budget crisis, and obstruct the provision of well-paying domestic jobs. 

In the end, it is not just people in the energy industry, but American workers, taxpayers and consumers who are being strangled and kept from building a better nation for their families and futures when their government sees itself as the center of the universe.

Daniel Kish is senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research.