Without bolder action on spill, greatness to slip from America

Print More

For the second time in five years, an incredulous nation watches the New Orleans region deal with an out-of-control, man-made disaster. And, once again, an incredulous nation watches the government mount an ineffective response.

Five years ago, Americans watched water gush through breached floodwalls and drown 80 percent of New Orleans. Helicopters dropped huge sandbags into levee breaches, to no avail. Thousands of disaster victims were stranded downtown, needing food, water, medicine, help. TV viewers throughout the country found the situation excruciating and unacceptable. Before Katrina, FEMA director Michael Brown said he was prepared for whatever the storm might bring. Yet after the levees failed and thousands of flood victims cried for help on TV, Brown did interviews where he disputed their very existence. Later, e-mails revealed that Brown had written silly things during the crisis, and expressed a desire to go home.

Last year, BP said it had “proven technologies” available in case of a massive oil well blowout. But since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, BP has tried the same basic technologies that failed to stop the 1979 Ixtoc oil gusher, including variations of the so-called “top kill”, “top hat” and “junk shot” options.  The oil gusher continues to pollute Louisiana’s fisheries, marshlands, and beaches. BP CEO Tony Hayward has made many puzzling pronouncements throughout the crisis, the most recent being his claim that there is “no evidence” of massive oil plumes in the Gulf, and that coastal cleanup workers suffering from headaches and nosebleeds are victims of food poisoning. Echoing Brown’s lament in 2005, Hayward said that he wants this all to end because he’d “like [his] life back.” Presumably, eleven souls share Hayward’s sentiments.

Americans dislike feeling helpless while watching problems worsen. We believe spectacular situations deserve spectacular responses. We like to think that when national urgency requires us to bring the full force of our efforts to solve a problem, the results will be impressive and successful, not impotent and shameful.

America used to meet great challenges with awesome responses: railroads connected coasts, dams harnessed rivers, skyscrapers altered cities and horizons. We sent manned rockets to the moon to win the space race, and invented atomic weapons to end World War II… Now this (once?) proud nation watches itself unable to plug floodwalls to save a city, or seal a hole in the ocean floor to save a coast. Over the past five years, crises in South Louisiana have shaken our faith in American ingenuity, and made us doubt our ability to solve problems and respond to emergencies.

Louisianans want to see the Feds moving heaven and earth to help them, like they’d do if an oil spill threatened wealthier communities on the East or West coasts. And everyone is craving a bolder and more effective display of leadership.

In the past two weeks, public frustration has expanded beyond BP, and it now includes the disappointing federal response to the oil gusher. Disapproval for President Obama’s handling of the crisis is  55 percent, and demand for stronger action is palpable. The Obama administration’s response has not been impressive, and I predict that growing public discontent will force it to take bolder actions. How bold, is the question.

Though there’s no consensus about what exactly Obama should do, he certainly missed several recent opportunities to act more boldly. Weeks ago, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and Gov. Bobby Jindal led a groundswell campaign to build barrier islands to protect Louisiana’s fragile marshlands from oncoming oil. That plan was only very partially and very belatedly approved by Obama, and few were thrilled with the end result. The Coast Guard had been skeptical of the plan from the outset, deeming it an ineffective use of resources.

Nungesser spoke for many when he wondered why “resources” were even a consideration. BP is supposedly paying, so why not do everything possible? And it’s not like the barrier islands don’t serve a valuable dual purpose; they can absorb oil now, and protect the Louisiana coast from storm surge for years to come. Dubai builds islands for decoration, yet it’s beyond our budget to dredge sand barriers to save the stricken Louisiana coast during an emergency!? Have we really fallen that far?

I channel Nungesser whenever I hear BP promising to “redouble” their efforts, or when the Feds declare that they will “triple” the available manpower. Why aren’t we already at the maximums in both categories? When BP explains that a clean-up crew is leaving the beach in the early afternoon because it’s hot outside, I’m wondering: where’s the bus bringing in the second shift of workers? When the government proudly boasts that they forced BP to drill two expensive relief wells instead of one, I’m prompted to ask: why not four, just to be on the safe side?

BP wants everyone to know that they’ve spent almost a billion dollars so far in cleanup costs. Granted, that’s a nice chunk of change, but not when compared to the 60 billion dollars BP has lost in stock market capitalization since April 20. Plus, BP is potentially facing another $60 billion or more in fines for this mess. Shouldn’t they be emptying their wallets now, and doing whatever it takes to solve this thing ASAP? Their reputation is at stake, and perhaps their future viability as a company. Shouldn’t they be doing more? And if they’re unable, unequipped, or unwilling to do more – which seems to be the case –  isn’t it necessary for Obama to step in?

So Obama came to Louisiana on Friday, but missed an opportunity to… step in. After the failure of BP’s top kill effort to seal the well, Obama should’ve told the company to stand down and put the military in charge. He should’ve informed BP that their new role is to simply write checks and await criminal charges. Hayward is free to resume his “life” in Britain. The U.S. military would handle the rest, aided by an advisory committee comprised of BP’s competitors, who would assist the military in stopping the leak. Cost would be no object. And if BP so much as cleared their throat over the arrangements, Obama could threaten nationalization.

If this disaster goes unresolved throughout the summer, it’s not absurd to think that this event might mark a fundamental turning point in how Americans view themselves. We’d like to believe that we can still muster the will to do tremendous things. But if that’s true, why don’t we see supertankers being brought into position to  vacuum the oil slicks? Why don’t we see a posse of scientists pouring vats of oil-eating supermicrobe broth into affected coastal wetlands? Where’s the spectacular, heroic solution, like in the movies?

So far we’ve seen none of that, and it feels depressingly familiar. Is this what we can expect from our leaders from now on?

Moreover, the confluence of political pressures right now shouldn’t be underestimated. The president’s already-low approval ratings are falling, his response to this disaster is viewed poorly, and Democratic Congressional majorities are in jeopardy. Whether this is Obama’s “Katrina”, in the strictest sense, is irrelevant. The Macondo oil gusher is a defining moment for the Obama administration, and perhaps will be viewed (along with Katrina, the Great Recession, the war in Iraq, and the rise of China) as a significant turning point in American history. As we enter hurricane season during an important and volatile election year, this administration can’t afford another 40 days of BP making excuses while the nation watches the spillcam with macabre fascination. That’s a politically untenable scenario, and I can’t imagine it happening.

But the coming bold moves that will eventuate from these pressures concern me, as well. I fear the emergence of one proposed “solution” that has gained recent buzz. I’m referring to the remarkable amount of interest in dynamiting or even nuking the oil gusher shut. To be sure, the nuclear option would qualify as a bold maneuver with a high gee-whiz quotient, but I’m terribly concerned that this idea carries significant catastrophic risks. As excruciating as the current situation is, I’m not comfortable with nuking the hole shut.

If, as we’re led to believe, the immense underwater depths make solving this problem so difficult– why do we think a huge underwater explosion wouldn’t have potentially apocalyptic downsides? Proponents note that the Russians have blown wells up numerous times— but how comforting is that? Ah, the Russians –  those famous problem-solvers, those environmental stewards –  let’s mimic them! Deploy the underwater atomics post haste! (But not before we set up the TV cameras to capture the cathartic kablooie on prime time.)

Recently, the widely read Big Picture blog published sensational claims from investment banker Matt Simmons, which echo some of the cryptic theories of local blogger Damabla at American Zombie. In short, they believe that the top kill and similar efforts are a sideshow, and that the leak problem is much bigger than BP or the government will admit. Simmons suggests we may be forced to nuke the oil leaks – he believes there are several —  in order to seal them.

Also, Cryptogon cited a news story that has led bloggers and other pundits to infer that the Obama administration is already considering the nuke idea. In response, Singularity warns: don’t do it! We may risk volatizing the methane ice on the sea floor and perhaps open up a disastrously bigger leak. What’s the back up plan after that happens? Double down on more nukes? A Martingale strategy on the Macondo? Color me concerned.

With rising discontent, falling poll numbers, an intolerable environmental disaster growing by the day, an active hurricane season, and fewer and fewer available options… might the nuclear “solution” get more of a mainstream hearing in coming weeks? If BP continues to fail, can military involvement be far off? And after military involvement occurs, won’t there be a serious discussion about using explosives to seal the hole? Surely Obama would be one of the last presidents to propose a nuclear solution to any problem. But immense pressures are surrounding this situation, on so many levels, so I’ll predict that in coming weeks we’ll hear a growing chorus militating for this dubious, albeit spectacular, nuclear option.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.