The Government Boot

Posted May 26, 2010, at 5:35 p.m.

There have been growing calls for the federal government to take over efforts to stop oil from spewing out of an under-ocean well in the Gulf of Mexico. Clearly, BP, which operated the offshore well, has given the public plenty of reason to doubt its ability to stanch the spill. The federal government, however, doesn’t have the technical expertise — or the equipment — to cap the spewing well. This is not to say that the Obama administration shouldn’t substantially increase the pressure on BP to be more transparent and to redouble its efforts to stop the flow of oil.

Since an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, sinking the drilling rig and killing 11 workers, oil has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. BP has yet to say how much oil has been released. Efforts to cap the broken well have been largely unsuccessful and the oil slick has now reached shore in Louisiana.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Clean Water Act requires the president to take over the response to the oil spill. A provision of the act, posted on an NRDC blog, reads:

“If a discharge, or a substantial threat of a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance from a vessel, offshore facility, or onshore facility is of such a size or character as to be a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States (including but not limited to fish, shellfish, wildlife, other natural resources, and the public and private beaches and shorelines of the United States), the President shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge or to mitigate or prevent the threat of the discharge.”

The language says that the president “shall direct” efforts to stop the discharge. It doesn’t say the government should do the work.

Which begs the question: Are the best technical experts working together to find a way to stop the oil flow? BP officials said they are working with experts — including competitors, scientists and government officials — from around the globe to come up with new solutions.

Asked about the slow pace on CNN Sunday, Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, the agency overseeing the spill response, said: “It shouldn’t be satisfactory to anybody. I mean, there’s an immense level of frustration that it has taken this long.”

He continued: “The fact of the matter is we’re on entirely new ground here on how we deal with oil spill responses. All of our protocols, everything we’ve done so far have been pretty much premised on the criteria that were established by the Exxon Valdez.

“But a lack of human access to the discharge point, the fact that we’re looking at everything through remotely operated vehicles, this is an entirely new world, and I’ve said on many occasions, this is closer to Apollo 13 than the Exxon Valdez.”

The Apollo 13 mission wasn’t accomplished solely by the federal government. It also took a lot of private sector efforts. Although the administration must, in the words of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, keep a “boot on the neck” of BP, relying on the government to cap an oil well, stop the spread of the gulf oil slick and clean it up is not practical.

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