- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Back in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama critiqued the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. “There is not a sense of urgency out of this White House and this administration,” he declared, two years after the disaster struck. Now, more than a month since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, with a massive oil spill making landfall on the Gulf coast, Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal is the one calling for “more urgency.” The only rush in Washington is over where to shift the blame.

Mr. Obama apparently never had a plan for responding to this disaster. The White House seemingly felt that if the administration didn’t treat it as a crisis, it would go away. If fingers were to be pointed, they could direct them at BP. That political strategy worked well for a week or so. But BP has failed to come to grips with the spill, and the White House, lacking ready solutions, looks feeble and rudderless.

When the rig blew up on April 20, the U.S. Coast Guard made a commendable effort to save lives of oil-rig workers. After that, the government assumed the posture of a deer in the headlights. It took a week for Mr. Obama to issue the panicky command directive “plug the damn hole,” but he did not otherwise seem concerned. He waited almost two weeks to visit Louisiana, being held up by higher priorities like meeting U2’s Bono in the Oval Office and doing a standup routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

Military assets were available for immediate response to the catastrophe, but the Department of Homeland Security had to make a request before they could act. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano seemed unaware of this requirement. She waited nine days to declare the spill of “national significance” and admitted she didn’t know the Defense Department had any equipment that might be helpful. (For the record, the Naval Research Laboratory pioneered oil-spill control methods in the 1970s, and the Navy maintains oil-containment gear stockpiles around the world for emergency response to just these types of catastrophes.)

On Monday, the Commerce Department declared a “fishery disaster” in the Gulf, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to declare the oil spill a “major disaster.” Since the oil-rig explosion, there have been 17 major disaster declarations in 14 states after severe storms, flooding, tornados, earthquakes, mudslides and straight-line winds. Perhaps FEMA doesn’t make declarations regarding “man-caused disasters.”

In several cases, Washington has made the situation worse. Mr. Jindal sought to take the initiative to erect 80 miles of emergency sand-barrier islands to keep the oil from fouling the sensitive coastal wetlands, but the federal government said the plan needed more study, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the word “emergency.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ramped up the gangster rhetoric when he pledged to “keep our boot on [BP’s] neck until the job gets done.” That was a bizarre authoritarian image unsuitable for the American republic, but it does fit with the Obama administration drive to generate anti-corporate hatred as a means of avoiding culpability. Mr. Salazar continued his faux bravado last weekend when he said that if BP did not perform, the government would “push them out” and take over. Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is leading the government effort, sagely asked who would replace BP, forcing the sharp-tongued Mr. Salazar lamely to admit that his statement was “more of a metaphor.”

A better metaphor came from EPA head Lisa P. Jackson, who recently filled a cup with the increasingly fouled water at the mouth of the Mississippi River and exclaimed, “Oh, my God - it’s so thick!” Her agency’s thick-headedness was on display when it demanded that BP use a less-toxic chemical dispersant to break up the oil slick, even though alternatives are not available in sufficient quantity to handle such a large-scale catastrophe. When BP pointed this out, EPA bureaucrats told the oil experts to “keep looking.”

The Gulf oil spill is a case of epic failure for a liberal administration that has force-fit environmental concerns into all aspects of government policy. This is a far worse ecological tragedy than anything caused by global warming, and unlike that bugbear, this is a real, rolling disaster that is causing harm now. Mr. Obama’s response to the oil spill has not been very slick.

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