Blame, Baby, Blame! The Politics of the Oil Spill

When bad things happen, Mother Politics abhors a vacuum. Somebody has to take the blame, fairly or not.  Usually it is the person ostensibly “in charge.”   So it is with the Gulf oil spill.  As President and “CEO” of the country, Obama has increasingly become targeted from both sides of the political spectrum for his administration’s alleged failure to respond effectively to the ongoing catastrophe.  As a sign of the bipartisan nature of the criticism, bothSarah Palin and Donna Brazile have attacked the Obama administration for being too cozy with BP.  Democrat strategist James Carville leveled his own broadside against Obama’s response as well.  Others point out that Obama received more money in the form of BP PAC donations than anyone over the last two decades.  (Never mind that the amount going to Obama – $77,051- is dwarfed by the total money BP – $3.5 million – shelled out to myriad federal candidates in that period.)

Meanwhile, during debate in the Senate on whether to raise the liability cap for disasters like the oil spill, the Obama administration sided with Republicans against members of his own party who wanted the liability set at $10 billion, up from the current $75 million. (Administration officials worried that a $10 billion cap would drive small oil companies out of business.)   This is a crisis that is increasingly pitting Democrats in Congress against Obama, much as Republicans found themselves running away from George Bush in the aftermath of Katrina heading into the 2006 midterms.

The fact that Obama’s policies had almost nothing to do with causing this spill, and that there is very little his administration can do to stop the leak, is not going to stop efforts to place at least some of the responsibility for the disaster and its aftermath on his administration, anymore than a similar lack of actual responsibility protected Bush from the Katrina fallout.

Obama makes an easy target in part because of the politics of the oil industry. Currently there are about 6,500 offshore oil and gas installations across the globe – and 4,000 of them are in the Gulf of Mexico.  These produce about 30% of the U.S. total output, and are a major source of jobs and revenue in this region.  This is why the members of Congress representing the Gulf Region have to walk a fine line in response to this spill, and why they are so willing to target Obama for the failure to stop the spill.  With midterms coming up, it makes perfect sense for them to run for office by running against Obama’s handling of the spill.  But they do not want to come out openly against offshore oil drilling per se.  Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s comments on the Senate floor against a moratorium on off-shore drilling capture this sentiment. Comparing the gulf spill to the Challenger shuttle disaster, she argued in favor of continued drilling: “We don’t think that burying our head in the sand and pretending that our country doesn’t need this energy is the way to go,” she said.

Not everyone agrees.  Some of Obama’s critics, like Tom Friedman, have argued instead that Obama should use the spill to reverse course and instead call for a total halt on all off-shore drilling, and the imposition of carbon fees to reduce consumption.  This is unlikely to happen, given the politics of oil described above.  If demand for oil-based products remains high – as it almost certainly will – oil companies will continue to push the limits of oil exploration in search of greater profits.  Between 2005-08, production from wells drilled in waters 1,000 or more feet down increased by 67% – that’s more than 10% of global production.  Brazil has recently announced its intention to sink deep-water wells – some more than four miles down – to tap an oil field 200 miles off its coast.  Deep-water drilling is not going to stop – indeed, it is likely to increase in frequency. When unprecedented endeavors take place, however, unprecedented consequences may result.   We are witnessing that now with the Gulf oil spill, as engineers grapple with developing a solution for blocking the outflow of oil more than four miles down. The lessons learned from this spill will undoubtedly spur improvements in drilling techniques that may decrease the likelihood that this type of spill will occur again.

Politically, however, that is likely small solace for an Obama administration that has already seen its share of unprecedented policy problems, and which faces mounting political backlash from its handling of these issues six months before the midterms.  In apportioning responsibility for the Gulf spill, I would put the Obama administration way down at the bottom of the list.  Nonetheless, when it comes to distributing political blame, Obama is heading toward the top, with no evidence that he can cap the outflow of criticism anytime soon.

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