President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday night about the gulf oil spill — or “siege” as he called it — was full of what was meant to be reassuring language but woefully short on details. How will BP be held accountable? How will the government ensure the company sets aside enough money to compensate for the disaster? What steps will be taken to avert future deep-water oil disasters?
These are the questions the public wants answered. Without providing those answers, the president continues to look like a chief executive who is aloof from real-world problems and more interested in academic, rather than pragmatic, solutions.
At the same time, looking to the government to stop the oil spill and spearhead the cleanup isn’t realistic. Oil companies, not the federal government, have the equipment and technical know-how to deal with the oil continuing to spew from the undersea well. As we have seen, however, that knowledge is incomplete, and more collaboration among academics, government experts and industry scientists is needed. Dumping golf balls down the broken pipe — the so-called “junk shot” — did nothing to inspire public confidence in BP’s ability to handle the disaster.
BP also has financial reasons to get the situation under control. The spewing oil is lost revenue, and the black eye the company has received from the spill has driven down its stock price, which, in a sad twist, harms the pension funds that have invested billions in the company.
So, as the president said, the government’s role is to hold BP accountable. It in unclear that this has happened, so the president must explain the government’s next steps going forward, something he didn’t do in his 18-minute speech.
“I am frankly outraged that BP has been allowed to dictate the pace and tenor of the response for 59 days,” Sen. Olympia Snowe said after the president’s speech.
“What Americans require now, and what we have required since the moment this spill began, is a specific plan to amass and position all the equipment and personnel absolutely necessary to aggressively contain and control the spread of the oil and prevent it from destroying the wetlands, ecosystems, beaches and wildlife throughout the Gulf Coast,” she added.
The president also used the oil spill to call for an overdue national clean energy policy.
“We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean — because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water,” he said.
“Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude,” the president added.
These are good points that have been made hundreds of times before. Yet perennial congressional inaction on an aggressive energy policy shows that leadership, not a lack of statistics, is what is missing. If Congress is to pass such legislation this year, it will take leadership, not rhetoric, from the president.