Government & Politics

For Jindal, it’s better to be lucky than accountable

For a part-time governor, Bobby Jindal sure enjoys more than his share of luck. Not so much the “tipped-football-splits-the-uprights” lucky, more like a “self-serving-ambition-meets-opportunity” lucky.

Jindal’s received high marks for his administration’s posturing response during the oil gusher disaster. Most Louisianans seem to agree with Times-Picayune columnist Stephanie Grace, who wrote back in May that “Jindal the brainy problem solver gets it.”

Sure, Jindal deserves credit for being at the scene of a crisis. He gets the fact that people like their governors to look directly involved. He held near-daily press conferences. He complained about all the ways BP and the feds were holding the state back.

These moves played well in the moment, but political grandstanding isn’t everything. Eventually, results still count. Or at least they should.

Last weekend, five months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, BP officially killed the Macondo well. Jindal was out of state, campaigning in Florida for GOP gubernatorial hopeful Rick Scott.

Gov. Jindal was in all the right places with all the right people. Too bad he didn't always do the right thing.

Jindal will stump for many more Republican candidates in coming months and after election day he can begin promoting his new book, which gets released in November. The title is “Real Hope, Real Change: New Conservative Solutions to Rescue America” My sources say it’s around 300 pages, though the audio version is only 28 minutes on account of Jindal’s rapid narration.

While it’s swell that Jindal found enough free time as governor to write a book solving America’s troubles, let’s take a moment and examine his “solutions” for the oil gusher crisis. Jindal’s daily grandstanding against BP and the feds might’ve helped his career, but what were the results of his crisis decision-making?

Let’s stipulate at the outset that oil still lurks in the Gulf, still threatens our seafood, and still washes ashore. Beaches aren’t being inundated like they were in June, but oil has seeped under the shoreline sand, congregated in deep water plumes, and has reportedly settled on the sea floor. The disaster has entered a less visible, more long-term phase. Also, let’s be sure to recall how Jindal relentlessly framed the oil disaster in terms of a “war” to preserve “our way of life”.

1. The Berms – Good gravy! Who can forget the incredibly urgent plan to build sand berms to stop the oil invasion? Back in May, Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser touted the berms as Priority One. They took the idea on the offensive, quickly dismissing naysayers (including the Obama administration) who dared suggest that the berms were not “important defense mechanisms to protect our interior wetlands from oil impact.” Nungesser and Jindal excoriated the feds, who mulled the plan over for weeks. The idea sounded so simple: Sand berms stop the oil “out there” before it seeps into our precious wetlands.  And oiled berms are much easier to clean than fragmented marsh. Afterwards, the berms can be armed with plants and rocks and then serve as barriers to storm surge. What’s not to love?

Well, those irksome environmental scientists found a few things:

The consensus of the scientific community is that this project will not trap oil beyond what could be accomplished using traditional methods… The sand berms will not last… and [are] too far offshore to provide significant obstruction to oil flowing in and out of the estuary. The pace of the project is so slow, that it will never “close the door” to the oil. By the time they get to mile 40, it is likely that much of the earlier constructed berm will be gone.

Scientists also warned that berms would quickly erode if built improperly. Most importantly, unlike natural barrier islands, sand berms placed to maximize oil capture would prevent tides and sea life from accessing the coastal marsh. This could do more harm than good.

The Feds only partially approved the plan, and local officials received the news with supreme disappointment and outrage.

Jindal wouldn’t be dissuaded, though. With Churchillian resolve, Louisiana’s governor kept fighting to build the oil-trapping sand islands.  Our friends at The Shaw Group will move earth (if not heaven) to help us win this fight. Conservative political professor Jeffrey Sadow remarked on how Jindal had raised the stakes on the issue, saying the governor was going “all in” on the berm idea. It was a “make or break” decision, according to Sadow.

The Feds finally relented to massive pressure and approved a small portion of the Jindal-Nungesser berm plan. The result? Well initially it looked like the exact failure that many scientists predicted and feared. The construction of the first berms failed spectacularly, washing away so fast that large construction equipment on the berms became mostly submerged in the Gulf of Mexico.

Imagine for a moment if these were Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s berms and bulldozers that were getting washed away. Wouldn’t the state GOP exploit the issue, and circulate the embarrassingphotos of the debacle? But lucky ole Jindal only has state Democrats to worry about, which means he doesn’t have to worry at all. His administration took little heat over the lost berms and equipment. Few Louisianans saw the pictures of the initial berm failure. And today, even fewer Louisianans know about the latest berm news, which first appeared in an important LSU Daily Reveille story flagged by Len Bahr at LA Coast Post blog:

The ballyhoo and brouhaha about Bobby J and Billy N bullying BP for big bucks to build berms may be over! The gov is apparently abandoning his plan to build 100+ miles of sand berms to block the invasion of oil on the coast.

This story would be newsworthy enough but equally significant is the fact that this policy U-turn was discovered, not by Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper but by an LSU Daily Reveille staffer named Matthew Albright. He scooped his media brethren … with a feature article quoting Garret Graves, coastal advisor to Governor Jindal, as acknowledging that the governor’s office is no longer pursuing the completion of the controversial $360 million project and will stop at 14 miles of berm.

Clearly, Tuesday’s front page Times-Picayune berm storymissed the lead, which is: The Jindal administration has radically reduced the scope of their all-important berm plan, from 101 miles down to between 14 and 25 miles of protection. Shouldn’t they have to explain why? The administration claims there’s still vast amounts of oil in the Gulf (except when opening fishing areas). Why aren’t pundits and political opponents chortling: “Why the retreat, Bobby? After months of televised pleas about the importance of these berms, why are we leaving vast swaths of coast unprotected? Didn’t you tell us it’s better to fight the enemy “out there” rather than on the shores of our homeland?”

According to the T-P story, only 4.9 miles of sand berm has been completed.  So, the state has spent $86 million on five miles of berm that “received only light oiling” according to the EPA, and have “done little to stop oil from reaching wetlands and barrier islands behind them.” Quite simply, the berms are a huge, expensive bust and the governor’s office is quietly abandoning the original idea.

Months ago, when feds were holding up approval of the berm plan, Jindal said “That first month we lost, we could have created 10 miles of land.” If that’s true, why did it take over 2 months to complete less than 5 miles of berm? Jindal’s office hasn’t had to answer that question, among others. The governor gets to go “all in” on a bad idea, radically scale back, and pay no political price. I guess he’s just lucky like that.

1a. The Rocks – Similar to the sand-berm crusade, Jindal embraced a simple-sounding idea about building rock jetties to prevent oil from seeping into interior marshlands. Once again, scientists opposed the idea. But our “brainy” governor is never troubled when science isn’t on his side. He defended the idea with a “oil is worse than rocks” line of argument that didn’t impress T-P outdoors reporter Bob Marshall:

[Jindal] knows full well that since the day the rock idea was broached by Jefferson Parish politicians, the foremost authorities on Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem have come out against it.

Among their concerns:

Narrowing the passes will increase the velocity of tides and probably result in more oil being sucked into the interior marshes; modeling shows the project would result in increased salinities in interior marshes leading to greater rates of erosion; the barriers could change currents along coastal shorelines causing them to erode more quickly, leaving interior marshes more vulnerable and future rebuilding more costly; squeezing the passes would restrict the vital exchange of estuarine species between offshore and interior estuaries.

The Army Corps of Engineers denied the rock proposal, so it’s a total unknown whether the rocks would have succeeded or failed – assuming we assign equal value to the opinions of scientists and the because-I-said-so arguments of Jindal and Jefferson Parish Council members.

2. Freshwater Flow – Before the crucial plans for rocks and sand barriers, there was freshwater flow. We didn’t hear a lot about this disastrous decision locally, but here’s how a July article in The New York Times described it:

In late April, just days into what has turned out to be the largest oil spill in American history, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, with the support of local parish officials, ordered the opening of giant valves on the Mississippi River, releasing torrents of freshwater that they hoped would push oil back out to sea.

Now, reports indicate that the freshwater diversions have had a catastrophic impact on southeastern Louisiana’s oyster beds that is far in excess of the damage done by oil from the spill.

While it might be very American and very popular to crusade for bold plans, it sure helps when science is aligned with the boldness rather than against it. Conservatives often point to the danger of unintended consequences when government makes big, rash decisions, but these cautionary principles were rarely invoked before or after the freshwater flow decision. Once again, the argument for freshwater flow was deceptively simple: divert the river to push away the oil. Thus, Jindal quickly approved the water diversions and killed the oyster beds.

You wouldn’t expect a Rhodes scholar/Ivy League biology graduate governor to consistently approve big, scientifically unsound plans during a crisis. But the ineffectual berm plan and freshwater-flow oyster disaster demonstrate how bold politics trumps cautious science for this “brainy” administration. Yet no matter how spectacular the failure, Jindal’s good reputation goes unscathed.

3. Moratorium – While I doubt Jindal mentioned it while on the stump in Florida, he clearly understands that in Louisiana there’s no political penalty for opposing President Obama’s deepwater drilling moratorium. Jindal joined other leaders in bitterly condemning the moratorium after it was announced. Industry advocates were quick to assist the effort, fashioning idiotic plane metaphors for pols and pundits to use at every opportunity (as Jindal did in this Washington Post op-ed).

But let’s review the big picture:
Americans were horrified to learn that despite all its advanced technology, Big Oil possessed no proven method for quickly plugging runaway oil gushers. In addition –during the biggest offshore oil catastrophe in history – Americans also witnessed a spill at another well, a fire on another platform, and the discovery of “serious” blowout preventer problemson both relief well drilling rigs. Despite all these things, the Obama administration indicated that they would shorten the six-month moratorium, rather than lengthen it.

After concerns were raised following a blowout off the Australian coast last year, Obama opted to trust Big Oilsympathizers who discounted the possibility of a blowout near U.S. waters, and underestimated the potential damage that could occur. Thus, Obama bypassed environmentalists in his own administration and opened oil-drilling fields as a good faith overture to conservative Republicans.

Further, Obama became much more receptive to the wetlands restoration cause than any previous president. Then a horrendous oil blowout occurred in the Gulf, and the Obama administration learned that “serious” blowout preventer problems were more widespread than originally believed. He called for a 30-day moratorium, which Big Oil strongly resisted. Then he extended the moratorium to 6 months, while an independent investigation determined exactly what went wrong.

So despite Obama’s earlier initiatives to expand oil drilling and save our wetlands, Louisiana leaders reacted to a moratorium during an ongoing disaster as if it were a vindictive death sentence. Louisiana leaders wondered aloud if Obama just “hated” Louisiana. National conservatives indulged in conspiracy theories about the “timing” of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Jindal found himself on the other side of a simple, bold proposal during a crisis, and suddenly began to sound like some of his sand-berm critics: This idea is too broad, too bold, too simplistic! Obama didn’t think it through and listen to the experts. The economic costs might outweigh the safety benefits. It won’t work. And Jindal had the chutzpah to make these arguments while simultaneously discounting similar criticisms of his simplistic sand berm idea. But Louisianans disliked the moratorium, and weren’t concerned whether Jindal’s anti-moratorium arguments clashed with his earlier stances. The power Big Oil wields in Louisiana is amazing. One shudders to think what sort of oil catastrophe would need to occur for most Louisianans to admit that a moratorium might not be such a bad idea.

Jindal and other speakers described the potential damage of the moratorium in near-apocalyptic terms at the Rally for Economic Survivalsurvival! – held in Lafayette on July 21. The media guide for the Rally has a “Quick Facts” section that flatly claims: “In one act, the Obama administration has signed the pink slips of tens of thousands of Louisiana citizens.”

But two months later, the massive job losses haven’t materialized. As The Times-Picayune and other papers have noted, thus far oil companies have not laid off their skilled workforces, nor are drilling rigs abandoning the oil-rich Gulf en masse. Instead, companies are using the down time to perform maintenance and make safety enhancements to their equipment.

While initially disparaged as totally inadequate, the $100 million fund to compensate unemployed deepwater oil workers has barely been tapped:

Only 160 of the 8,000 people who worked on the 33 deepwater rigs that were banned from drilling have applied for aid from a $100 million fund set up for them by BP, according to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which administers the fund.

Someon the lefthave called Jindal’s exaggerations about the moratorium’s damage “a hoax.” I wouldn’t go that far. I think Jindal believes, or forces himself to believe, most of the things he says. So, I’d reserve the word “hoax” for more nefarious deceptions, like the recent documentary about Joaquin Phoenix’s troubled rap career.

However, it’s worth noting that Jindal has recently backtracked a bit on the moratorium’s damage. Instead of saying 20,000 jobs might be lost, now he’s saying “even one” lost job is too many during a slow economy.  Well, I wonder how he’ll receive that argument next year, when his “un-stimulated” state budget will necessitate spending cuts that force Louisianans out of work.

Jindal needn’t worry about political repercussions, though.

He’s allowed to grossly overstate the dangers of the moratorium without danger of being second-guessed.

He’s allowed to make dubious decisions at odds with scientific opinion, and pundits will still describe him as “brainy.”

Jindal can use wartime rhetoric for months, and then make any obvious “retreat” (as with the berms), with no media firestorm.

He’s just lucky like that. And when his luck ever runs out in Louisiana, he’ll already be on the move to greener pastures.

I can’t wait to read Jindal’s new book. Perhaps he should’ve titled it, “The Secret.”

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  • jeffrey

    Imagine for a moment if these were Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s berms and bulldozers that were getting washed away. Wouldn’t the state GOP exploit the issue, and circulate the embarrassing photos of the debacle?

    Only works in case of flooded school buses.

  • Rockin Big Molluskie. Jefferey, I would submit as well all those pics of crying black people.
    One if my fav pics is of Jindal on a plane with Commander of La Nat Guard: Bobby~Cowboy boots, Head of La Nat Guard~Army boots.
    Get the pictah?

  • A single story or two about the folly of berm creation and so on is almost worse than no story at all, because the media will claim they’ve “reported” on a particular issue…

    But it’s not enough to just report. The media also generates a narrative, which becomes “the story.” If you’re able to add enough spin, facts become virtually irrelevent.

    Consider: who’s the liberal and conservative? The person who raised taxes some half dozen times during his presidency (and added 61,000 federal jobs), or the one who reduced the federal payroll by over 350,000 and balanced the budget?

    The first is Ronald Reagan, the second Bill Clinton.

  • I should point out that when I say the state spent millions on berms which were an expensive mistake, I’m talking about the state spending BP’s money. The 4.9 mile, $87 million fiasco was “expensive” in terms of opportunity cost, since the money didn’t come directly out of state coffers.

  • Benny Rousselle

    I couldn’t agree more with the waste of money. I see this as a media event for the benefit of the Governor and Nungesser. I actually got tired of seeing both of them crying on the television while doing nothing but pointing the finger at everyone.

  • Mike

    Jindal is a joke. Worse, he’s a political opportunist of the worst kind . . . who also happens to be a joke. Louisiana may vote him into office . . . again . . . and again, but that is not going to work nationally. Goodbye, Bobby!

  • So much for Bobby’s participation in the “Austerity Caucus.” Castles made of sand, indeed.