Government & Politics

Without bolder action on spill, greatness to slip from America

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.

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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • Eli

    This is fantastic.

  • The nuclear option is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Talk about killing off the gulf.

  • Eli

    There’s a disconnect between people who want “bolder action” in the sense that they’re panicked and don’t know what to do and people like Nungesser, who are proposing ideas to contain the spill, but can’t get answers. This was great.

  • I was also wondering if top kill and junk shot were strictly for show. And if the only options are dynamite, nukes, or a relief well that won’t be ready until August…assuming there are no technical problems…and no storms…saying the choices range from bad to worse is quite the understatement.

  • jeffrey

    First of all, is it okay to say that Hayward is “Obama’s Mike Brown”? They’re even kind of the same pasty, doughy, beady-eyed guy when you think about it.

    Also the answer to the almost stated question here is, yes we are pretty much the new Russians.

  • I can’t believe no one’s hit you with a comment yet.
    You’gonna do just fine here, Big Molluski.
    Nuking it is one thing. Drilling 2-4 holes either side down about 1000 feet (of the well’s 18,000ft) loading with 5-10,000 lbs of high explosives spaced down each hole would probably collapse the hole, given the considerable weight and pressure from above. The hole is only appx 2 ft in diameter. Then maybe nuke it with a small Tactical warhead to glass it over for good measure.
    Anything short of stopping that leak is the end of Obama’s presidency. And even if they stop the leak, this summer will see this oil from the Gulf carried to nearly every doorstep in the country this side of the Rockies.
    Obama is One’n’Done.
    Wanna double or nothing our little bet, Mark, that Hillary Clinton resigns at the end of the summer? Especially if everything goes to “plan” with stopping the leak? You beat me on every other bet, so show me yer’War Face. Hillary in 2012?

    Thanks youz.

  • Kate

    Why on earth-after Katrina-would you want to put it in the government’s hands? I know BP isn’t doing a good job, but the government-there’s a joke. We tried to put Katrina in the government’s hands and STILL have not seen the response we should have seen. What about Brad Pitt? Yes, thats a joke-but seriously-he did more single handedly with his power, influence, and money, to help the people of New Orleans then a lot of our government officials-so why not outsource this to a private organization-one who cares. One whose focus is people, the environment, and a solution-not a stock price and not a vote in the next election.

  • Eli, I think the disconnect at this point is with people who want ANY action from the Obama administration. Screw “Bolder”, let’s get SOMETHING going…ANYTHING but this BP Glory Hole known as Incident Command. Don’t give me the PR laundry list of all the “Day One” horse hockey. Obama and Emmanuel from Day One played this like a game of cards while we are playing Fight The Pirates.
    Yeah, people are panicked, but they haven’t gone Fey like Obama, our US Military and Thad “The Impaler” Allen of the BP Coast Guard.
    What we have heah is a Fail’ya ta’Comoonicate on a National Socialists Convict Farm.
    We’re Free! said the panicked in Needle Park.

  • Wes

    The President is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Had he stepped in right away, he would have been attacked for spending taxpayer money on something a wealthy, private company should be paying for. He also would have been attacked for his Government being “too big” and again stepping on the toes of a private company. But if he sits back and does nothing, his detractors compare him to the Bush Administration and Katrina. The area may be the same, but that is where the similarities end in this situation. Yes, at this point, the Government needs to step in and do whatever it takes to put an end to this, and then immediately send an invoice to BP. But this is no where near as simple of a situation as the botched Katrina rescue effort.

  • Dee

    This is not America’s problem to solve. The WH has foolishly placed themselves “in charge” but what do a bunch of bureaucrats know about oil wells? Nothing!!!! This is BP’s problem to solve. And yes, I believe that from day 1 it was known that drilling the relief well was going to be the only real fix and it would take lots of time. But BP and the WH knew that Americans like instant fixes and so the Dog & Pony Show came out to distract the children that we are. The only problem is that with each failure confidence ebbs and both BP and the WH look like a bunch of idiots. You mention lots of great American achievements but fail to mention how long each took to come to be realized. We are too hooked on instant everything. This is a tragedy. But what American’s do is pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again. That is what made America great. Now, do we still have that spirit — I’m not so sure. We look to the government for far too much. Our identity as a nation used to be in it’s people, not in it’s agencies. Am I worried, yes, but not for the same reasons you are.

  • Buck

    If you’ve got multiple underwater plumes, at least one of which the size of Delaware and Maryland, the only thing ‘sensational’ is to believe it came out of some cracks in the 22 inch riser pipe. Matt Simmons is a reputable source; he stated his claim on both CNBC and Bloomberg, and I’ve scoured everywhere and no one has come forth to dispute his idea/claims.

    The silence is truly deafening.

  • And Buck, IF it’s true, there’s only one real option to stop it.

    – The nuclear option is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Talk about killing off the gulf.

    That’s not true Adrostos. The charges would be limited and we have a long history and understanding of the effects of radiation fallout underwater. We nuked the shit out of the South Pacific for decades and the lingering effects were minimal.

    It may surprise you to know that every drilling rig in the gulf is pumping out radioactive material on a daily basis….it’s called processed water. During the drilling process the rigs pull water from under the earth’s crust which contains not only heavy metals like mercury, but also radioactive materials like radium. When drilling first began they were dumping that processed water on shore, but during the late 80’s the EPA banned the product from being dumped on land and they then started dumping it directly off the rigs into the ocean. The EPA has allowed the process to continue for decades without conducting an honest environmental assessment as to the effects of processed water.

    There is a lot of speculation involved but suffice to say we are probably radiating the waters of the gulf more in one year from processed water than a single limited nuclear blast at 5000 feet could even come close to.

  • – so I’ll predict that in coming weeks we’ll hear a growing chorus militating for this dubious, albeit spectacular, nuclear option.

    count me in that number

  • Dambala, did you watch the video at Singularity? You seem to be ignoring the methane problem. I vaguely remember a Daily Show episode from way back when, with the line, “The Mayans were right, we’re all going to die.”

    But I don’t think it will come to that:

  • Lawrence

    Most of these other solutions are ridiculous and impractical and really nuts and dangerous. Anything put in the pipe or over it will be blown out by the flow. The most practical solution to control this leak is to solve the problem at its source. The broken pipe is the source of the problem and yet still has its own integrity. The best way to get control of this leak is to gradually crimp the pipe with hydraulic squeeze jaws. The pipe is reported to already have a “dent” in it and this proves that the pipe is not brittle but is malleable and will therefore dent. The report also said that the “dent” that is already there represents a significant reduction in flow rate and if they would cut the pipe and remove the dent then the oil flow would then be worse! THEY HAVE THE CLUE TO THE SOLUTION ALREADY RIGHT IN THIS REPORT. The report says the dent in the pipe reduces the flow! WILL THEY PLEASE DENT THE PIPE SOME MORE? — IMMEDIATELY! They can continue to dent the pipe all the way shut which is the crimp — completely under control — with a set of clamping jaws and squeeze it shut gradually with hydraulic pressure. If the hydraulic forces needed to operate the jaws to squeeze the pipe shut are too great to generate at the ocean surface and send down a mile length of high pressure hydraulic hoses, then they better get to work immediately to implement a self-contained hydraulic unit that would be electrically powered and tethered that would operate at that depth. A self contained hydraulic unit that was equalized in pressure at that depth would then only have to generate the pressure necessary to operate the jaws. There are fish that operate at this depth. We have to implement and operate effectively at that depth. This is new territory for engineers. And unfortunately, they were not prepared and this is now an emergency. This is clearly the direction that development needs to go in immediately to solve deep sea problems like this both now and in the future. This is something that they can do as soon as someone directs them to do it and it will work. THIS WILL WORK.

  • I don’t know a whole lot about nuclear explosions, oil wells or geology but I have been a student of chaos my entire life. I would rather wait until August than to see that type of chaos in the Gulf. There seems to be one thing that can go right and and infinite number of things that can go wrong.

  • jeffrey

    Have we ever tried to nuke a hurricane? If we wait til August, we might get two birds with one stone. Ah.. who am I kidding? Everybody knows there won’t be any birds left by then.

  • Wes says:
    June 2, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    “But this is no where near as simple of a situation as the botched Katrina rescue effort.”

    Thank God Obama’s so much smarter than Bush, right, Wes?

  • Yes, thank god Obama’s smarter than Bush — Junior might well have declared Mission Accomplished on the day the well blew up, then smirk “Bring [it] on” re: the spill, then try to nuke the Gulf, then insist that “nobody could have predicted that [nuking the Gulf] would cause an even greater environmental catastrophe,” then make a joke about it all at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner…and then leave the mess for his successor to clean up.

  • Oh! So your former now Dead Thief Blog is CONSTRICTED, RESTRICTED and just DICKTED to only “Team Members”.
    Well! Whateva. Here’s my comment anyway:

    Aw’jeez. OK Mister Big Stuff.
    You could at least come over here now’n’then and leave some pithy wit or some’ting.
    The Lens is great and everything, but you actin’all straight up over there. Whateva, even bivalves gotta work for da’pearls and whateva.
    Just not used to this not being here s’all.
    Grrrr…even your damn comment thingy has gotten all hoytee’falloytee. Want’s username and password for punks’ sake.
    “Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well. No time for the old in-out, love, I’ve just come to read the meter.”
    Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

  • sheltie127

    Hayward & his cronies belong in jail, & not Club Fed, for their criminal negligence. I will never believe that they didn’t see this event as a possibility. They did a risk-reward analysis & figured that they’d come out ahead even if the worst happened. They know the feds will give them nothing but a slap on the wrist.