Government & Politics

Another man-made disaster, another presidential speech

As President Obama prepares to make a prime-time address about the oil gusher, South Louisiana finds itself in a familiar position: reeling from man-made disaster, concerned about the future, and hopeful their president will make a bold commitment to the region in front of a national TV audience.

Based on past experience, the smart money is on the “under” side of the over-under bet when it comes to the president keeping his commitments to post-disaster Louisiana. While President Bush’s famous 2005 speech in Jackson Square included several rhetorical flourishes and grandiose-sounding promises, the follow-through was, shall we say, sub-optimal. Remember Project Pelican? The Baker Bill?  The far-flung hope for Category 5 flood protection and wetlands restoration? Much less the “bold action” promised to confront the “persistent poverty” of the region? All those proposals to rebuild the region died on the vine, some quicker than others.

In the end, New Orleans had to fight for weak Category 3 levees, a dreadfully slow housing bailout, insufficient long-term recovery investment money, and oil royalties to pay to rebuild Louisiana’s vanishing coast that don’t really begin flowing until 2017. Thus, despite hearing presidents repeatedly use the term “unprecedented” to describe recent Gulf Coast disasters, we’ve been in this situation before.

The White House gave the media a list of five points that Obama will cover tonight. They are:

1. Reorganization at the Department of Interior in what was once MMS and mission of the Oil Commission to ensure a regulatory structure for safe energy exploration.

2. Discuss containment strategy for capturing as much of or all the oil leaking in the Gulf

3. The BP claims process and what’s being done to make it fast, efficient and transparent and to ensure its independence from BP.

4. The beginning of a process to restore the Gulf to a place better than it was before the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

5. Talk about what we must do to decrease our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels.

6. Appoint Hooters hostess Mandy J. to be the new “Boom Boom” Czar.

Since No. 5 entails the outlines of a new national energy vision, it will capture most of the national headlines and cable TV discussions. Meanwhile, The Times-Picayune editors are transfixed by what Obama will say about the six-month oil-drilling moratorium, hoping he’ll shorten it and provide restitution for the affected.

What I’m interested is point four, as it echoes the unkept promises Bush made to address problems that festered in the region prior to the disaster. Standing in front of a church in a mostly drowned city, Bush decided that he would not only commit to restoring New Orleans, but would tackle poverty, as well. (That didn’t last long.) Now, despite a fiscal straitjacket, Obama is somehow daring to say he will begin the process of making the Gulf “better” than it was before the toxic Macondo gusher began to spew? It seems like another laughable overpromise in the making. The effects of this disaster may last for generations, and it’s no exaggeration to say that an entire “way of life” is threatened. Oil will continue to flow well into August. How can Obama tell Louisianans living along the fastest disappearing land-mass in the world that someday things will be “better” than they were “before” this toxic calamity?

The only plausible way Obama can seriously make this “better” claim is if he has a plan for accelerated wetlands restoration. Nothing else makes sense, in my view. Prioritizing coastal restoration would be sufficiently “bold” enough for me, and would address the long-term crisis that will haunt Louisiana even after this oil spill is cleaned.  Jeffrey at Library Chronicles isn’t holding his breath, but he points to a tantalizing CNN interview with former Tulane professor Douglas Brinkley, who baldly asserts that this speech marks an historical “turning point” because Obama will announce a Gulf Coast Recovery Act that will restore the wetlands the oil industry (among others) have “abused” over the years.

Bold, indeed. Tonight, the President might make one of the most important speeches in Louisiana history. Might, I said. It’s a long shot based on little more than Brinkley’s statement and on the wording of the White House’s media bullet points. Sadly, the smart money is on more of the same tonight: fancy promises to a stricken region that will ultimately go largely unkept.

One of my sources said that Obama will order BP to drill perhaps two more relief wells in addition to the two that are already going, in order to lessen the chance of prolonged failure to stop the gusher. Relief wells are a complicated business, and things can still go wrong. They are drilling far into the ground, trying to hit an area the size of a basketball. Assuming the integrity of the well hole is intact, gulp, there’s a high probability of success, 95 percent or better.  But it doesn’t hurt to increase redundancies in order to plug the damn thing as soon as possible.

Speaking of basketball, though, the president’s speech will not interrupt coverage of Game 6 of the NBA finals, which might boast as many viewers as the USA-England futbol match. While I’m partial to the Celtics, if Obama makes an iron-clad commitment to restore the wetlands tonight, I’ll forget to care whether or not they beat the hated Lakers. In other words, I’m betting on the long shot, and should probably prepare myself for eventual disappointment.

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    Statistical analysis of how many relief wells to drill.

  • jeffrey

    That big Doug Brinkley Marshall Plan for the battered coastline somehow morphed into Ray Maybus. I am even less impressed than before. But hey at least we’re going to “instruct” BP to set up an escrow account managed by a “third party” I nominate ICF.