Tag Archives: oil spill

Why Obama Should Not Sweat the “Little Spills” (and Politically, They Are All Little Spills)

The relatively disappointing reaction to Obama’s prime time Oval Office address, against the backdrop of BP CEO Tony Hayward’s Sergeant Schulz-like testimony (“I see nothing! I hear nothing!”) before a congressional committee, and the seemingly nonstop coverage of the spill itself, have collectively contributed to the impression that we’ve reached an “inflection point” in the Gulf oil crisis – but not the one for which the White House hoped.  Instead, critics (see here and here and here) are suggesting that Obama’s handling of the crisis is threatening not just Democrats’ fortunes in the 2010 midterms, but Obama’s reelection chances in 2012.  Perceptions of his leadership are rapidly approaching Carteresque territory, with the daily headlines – Day 59 of the Gulf Crisis! – reminding viewers of Nightline’s nightly announcement of how long Americans were held hostage in Iran during Carter’s presidency.

To support the claim that the Gulf oil spill is in danger of becoming Obama’s hostage crisis, critics note that public support for Obama’s handling of the spill has dropped. In this regard, Tom Bevan posts the following poll results at RealclearPolitics:

According to Bevan, that’s a drop in the public’s approval of Obama’s handling of the oil spill of 18 points in the latest AP/GFK poll, 21 points according to Fox News and 13 in CNN’s polls. As Bevan notes,  other polls find a majority of Americans criticizing the President for his failure to act quickly enough in responding to the crisis, and for being too lenient on BP.

Perhaps most alarming, the latest USAToday/Gallup poll indicates a majority (51%) of all adults (not just likely voters) now believe Obama should not be reelected in 2012.  All this has not been lost on the White House, which explains, I think, the concerted public relations efforts in recent weeks to show that Obama is on top of the issue; he has made four trips to the Gulf coastline, in addition to his nationwide address, and his top aides have fanned out to news shows defending the administration’s response.

At the risk of heresy, let me make the following assertion: politically speaking, the oil spill is not that big a deal. Note: I’m not trying to minimize its environmental implications, nor the urgency to cap the leak.  But politically it should not be Obama’s top priority.  Indeed, rather than pursuing a no-win strategy of appearing to be on top of an issue over which he has no control, Obama would be far better off by distancing himself from the spill.  The reason is that the public is smart enough to realize he’s not responsible for the initial explosion at the oil rig, and they still believe BP should take primary responsibility for the cleanup.

But what about these disastrous poll numbers?  It’s true that the public doesn’t think Obama has handled the spill very well – but that’s because Obama continues to insist that he’s in charge, and yet the oil continues to spew.  If we step back from oil spill, however, and look at Obama’s overall approval numbers (see the polls above), they’ve barely budged from what they were before the spill, suggesting that the public is fully capable of separating their judgment of his reaction to the spill from their overall evaluations of him as president.  Bevan suggests that Obama’s numbers should have gone up after the spill as the public rallies behind the President.  I’m skeptical – the oil spill is not the same rally-round-the-flag type event that normally boosts a President’s poll ratings.

Instead, I think the lesson from these polls is that the public is quite capable of distinguishing Obama’s reaction to the spill from his overall performance as president. This distinction is easy to lose if one focuses solely on the daily diatribes about the oil spill that continue to dominate cable shows and opinion columns.  But we shouldn’t confuse the punditocracy’s need to fill airtime with the real concerns of  most Americans.

What about those reelection numbers?  Same thing: they haven’t changed from what they were before the spill.  Here’s the Gallup poll data showing that despite the perception that he’s mishandled the spill, support for his reelection hasn’t changed from what Gallup was recording before the explosion:

In short, there’s no evidence yet that the public’s overall assessment of Obama’s presidency is being eroded by his ham-handed reaction to the oil crisis.  The reason why, I think, is because when prioritizing their concerns, the public is far more interested in jobs and the economy.    Oil spewing from a broken pipe may make for great visuals, and it certainly affects the livelihood of the Gulf coast residents.  It may even be one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history (although at this point it’s not even the biggest oil spill).  But for most Americans, it’s an abstraction – something they see on their television screens but which doesn’t affect them directly.  Indeed, a slight majority of Americans continue to favor off-shore drilling for oil (although there is less support for expanding those efforts beyond current levels).

Given these dynamics, Obama would be far better off stepping back from the Gulf spill and turning over daily responsibility to a cabinet secretary, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, or some other figure. Let Salazar become the administration’s public face of this disaster.  Obama should move on to those issues – jobs, the economy, Afghanistan – that are of greater concern to voters, and over which he may have greater influence.  The alternative – repeated shots of him expressing concern about the spill interspersed with video of crude bubbling to the surface and images of oil-slicked seagulls – simply reminds voters of how little he can do to stop it.

Do This! Do That! And Nothing Will Happen…Why Obama Should Not Have Given Tuesday’s Speech

President Obama made his first prime-time Oval Office address last Tuesday, to decidedly mixed reviews. Some of his most usually stalwart defenders, like Keith Olbermann and Chris (“My Leg Isn’t Tingling”) Matthews this time were not impressed.  For the most part, these critics wanted Obama to be more decisive and to convey a greater sense of command.  Some also wished that he came down harder on BP.

I share their concerns about the speech – but for different reasons.  This was Obama’s first nationwide address from the Oval Office.  On average, as indicated in this table from the American Presidency research project, presidents dating back to Coolidge make about 4 “major” addresses a year.

President total in term yearly average average monthly interval between speeches
Coolidge 25 5.0 2.4
Hoover 7 1.8 6.1
Roosevelt I 12 3.0 4.0
Roosevelt II 13 3.3 3.7
Roosevelt III 19 4.8 2.5
Roosevelt IV 1
Truman I 17 3.4 2.8
Truman II 15 3.8 3.2
Eisenhower I 21 5.3 2.3
Eisenhower II 20 5.0 2.5
Kennedy 15 5.0 2.3
Johnson 23 4.6 2.7
Nixon I 23 5.8 2.1
Nixon II 13 8.1 1.5
Ford 12 5.2 2.4
Carter 17 4.3 2.8
Reagan I 20 5.0 2.4
Reagan II 27 6.8 1.8
Bush 17 4.3 2.8
Clinton I 14 3.5 3.4

These numbers (which are based in part on research by Lyn Ragsdale) include the State of the Union and Inaugural addresses, so the average number of nationwide addresses originating from the Oval Office is fewer.  In short, a speech from the Oval Office historically signifies an historically important occasion.  As such, presidents typically use these addresses to make major policy pronouncements (Nixon announcing the invasion of Cambodia, for example), or to react to major events, such as Reagan’s speech in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.

The setting makes a difference in another way as well.  In a State of the Union speech or Inaugural Address, the President becomes part of a larger historical tapestry woven from the words and actions of his predecessors dating back to Washington.  That’s why certain themes – continuity, renewal, America as a beacon of hope and land of liberty – regularly occur in these events. These ceremonial speeches are as much about the country and its traditions as it is about the individual President.

In contrast, an Oval Office speech is a more intimate affair.  Presidents come into your living room to talk directly with you.  They can’t hide behind ceremony or tradition, and there is no immediate audience on which to play off. Some presidents – Ronald Reagan comes to mind – were generally superb in this setting.  Franklin Roosevelt, in his celebrated radio addresses, also excelled. What they succeeded in doing was conveying the sense that they were talking to you, and not simply addressing the nation.  It is not an easy task, and I thought Obama fell short of the mark on Tuesday. Although his words sought to convey a sense of urgency and decisiveness, his demeanor did not.  In my view, he appeared uncomfortably detached; he read the words, but did not convey the sense of passion or command the words were meant to elicit.

Part of the reason for this disconnect, I think, is because the speech lacked the proper substance, given the significance of the setting. Nothing had occurred in the oil spill that warranted an Oval Office speech now; oil continues to gush into the Gulf with no signs that anyone – including the Obama administration – is any closer to a solution.  Using your first Oval Office address to announce the appointment of a presidential commission, to promise that BP would cover the cleanup costs, and to remind us that we cannot continue to rely on drilling our way to energy self-sufficiency (you think?) seems decidedly anticlimactic.  Far better, I think, for Obama to have waited until the hole was plugged to appear on television. He could then have used that positive event as a springboard for pushing a new energy policy.  As it was, his speech merely reinforced the public impression that he has no immediate plan to plug the leak.  Words without action convey an impression of impotence – not command.

Why, then, did Obama decide to give this speech at this time, in this setting?  Because he feels compelled to demonstrate that he’s doing something about the spill. All presidents feel the weight of unrealistic expectations to do something about events over which they have very little control.  They take office expecting to lead, only to find that on most major events they possess very little means of doing so.  The sentiment is famously captured in Harry Truman’s remarks (as conveyed by Richard Neustadt) in anticipation of Dwight Eisenhower becoming president: “He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this!  Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Obama may lack misconceptions of his authority rooted in military service, but no doubt he is frustrated.  All presidents are, sooner or later.  Indeed, the major gaffes in most presidencies derive from this frustration – think Johnson and the decision to escalate the U.S. presence in Vietnam, Nixon and national security leaks, or Reagan and the Iran-contra affair. But these incidents provide an important lesson – one that is difficult for presidents and their advisers to accept: often the best presidential decision is to recognize when to do nothing.

It is understandable in this hothouse media-driven context that presidents feel compelled to take steps to reframe a negative news narrative in a more positive light.  In truth, however – despite what the talking heads may say – there is no compelling evidence that the oil spill is significantly undercutting Obama’s public support; his approval ratings have dropped perhaps 1-3% since the April explosion.  And even if it is, it is not clear that making speeches that simply highlight his inability to solve the root problem is the proper response.  It is often hard for presidents, sitting in the White House bubble, to see beyond the nightly news commentary emanating from the chattering class.  It may be harder for this president, who ostensibly gained office in part on his ability to use speeches to frame the news narrative, to recognize that rhetoric not supported by reality doesn’t convey leadership.

My advice?  Sit tight. Be patient.  Don’t try to substitute the perception of command for the reality.   Instead, trust the people to recognize the limits on presidential power and to respond accordingly.

Why the Minerals Management Service Should Not Be Blamed for the Oil Spill

Not surprisingly, the Gulf  Oil spill has prompted the media to shine a spotlight on the Mineral Management Service (MMS), the government agency responsible for issuing permits allowing oil companies to drill in federally-owned waters.  Stories such as this one in today’s New York Times suggest that the MMS’s cozy relationship with the oil industry led to a lax permitting process, thus contributing to the disaster.  As evidence, they point to previous instances in which the MMS ran afoul of government regulators and attracted congressional interest in reforming the agency.  However, these media stories are somewhat misleading; while it is true that the MMS was accused of overseeing a lax permitting process and being too cozy with the oil industry,  the stories do not really focus on the reason why this situation exists.  In fact, the government institution that bears primary responsibility for how the MMS operates is the very one whose members are calling for investigations now: Congress.

Some background on the MMS is in order. News accounts suggest it was “created” in 1982 via executive order issued by President Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt.  In fact, what Watt did was consolidate into one agency the mineral revenue management functions previously exercised by the US Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, and US Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Any government agency, when first established, must determine its “mission”.   What is it about?  How the agency determines its mission has important implications for its internal structure, especially which employees will wield the most influence, its hiring strategies, and how it relates to its external environment.  Typically, the mission is designed to insure the agency’s autonomy and political survival.   In this case, the MMS essentially inherited its mission from these previous agencies.

As a consequence the MMS from its inception defined its mission as collecting payments for minerals extracted from federally-owned waters.  A look at the backgrounds of the 10 MMS directors serving from its inception until the Obama administration shows that many had backgrounds in litigation and revenue collection.  These backgrounds are well suited for negotiating revenue agreements with private companies – not for understanding the environmental impact of off-shore oil drilling.

Here is the MMS mission statement, taken from its website:

“The Minerals Management Service (MMS), a bureau in the U.S. Department of the Interior, is the Federal agency that manages the nation’s natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS). The agency also collects, accounts for and disburses an average of $13.7 billion per year in revenues from Federal offshore mineral leases and from onshore mineral leases on Federal and American Indian lands. The program is national in scope and is headquartered in Washington, D.C.”

Note what its mission statement does NOT cite: environmental oversight or regulation.  Although it is supposed to consult with other governmental agencies with environmental responsibilities when it issues permits, that is not how the MMS defines its primary task.  Revenue estimation and collection is what it does.  And by most accounts it has been effective, at least as measured in dollar amounts, at fulfilling this mission. Since 1982, it has collected more than $210 billion in royalties and other revenues, most of which is then distributed to states, Indian tribes, counties, and the federal treasury. On an annual basis the $13 billion it raises constitutes about 95% of the total revenues collected by the Interior Department.  This makes it, next to the IRS, the most lucrative agency in the government (if my calculations are correct).

But if it is so effective, what about all those reports the NY Times and other new agencies cite about GAO investigations and congressional hearings?  Although these news accounts seem to imply that investigators primarily worried about the environmental failures linked to the MMS permitting process, that is not the case.  Instead, the more typical concern (although not the only one) was that the MMS did not  charge the oil companies enough money to drill in federal waters. Most of the GAO reports dealing with the MMS focus on the weakness of a “payment-in-kind” or other aspects of the royalty program – not an environmentally-lax permitting process.   Similarly, the IGS investigation cited by the Times also focused on the MMS’ revenue decisions.  The recurring complaint in these investigations is that MMS executive are cutting oil companies a revenue deal, rather than engaging in lax environmental regulation.

When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came in as the “new sheriff in town”, his ethics changes were designed not to heighten environmental awareness of potential oil spills, but instead to more strongly regulate the cozy relationship between oil companies and the MMS that threatened revenues.  In fact, it was Salazar – following Congress’ decision to open up off shore oil drilling – that initiated the hearing process designed to solicit comments on the Obama administration’s  off-shore drilling expansion plan.

My point is that Congress’ and regulatory agencies’ alarms regarding the failure of the MMS to fulfill its mission almost never focused on the environmental aspect of its permitting process, but instead on the revenue side.  (There are exceptions – the GAO, for example, in a 2007 report did question the environmental basis of some of the MMS’ Alaskan bureau’s review process).  In general, however, the MMS read the political signals – focus on revenues –  and acted accordingly.

But didn’t other government agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warn about the environmental aspects of expanding off shore drilling? Yes, but again the news accounts don’t tell the full story here.  As the Huffington Post and other website reported, the NOAA did express concern, as part of the hearing process into off shore drilling initiated by Salazar, about the environmental impact of drilling in sensitive areas.  But that concern, as one can read in its report here focused almost exclusively on the environmental impact of drilling in Arctic areas.

While it is easy with hindsight to blame Salazar, and by extension Obama, for pushing to expand off-shore drilling, the reality is that companies drilling in U.S. waters have a pretty good environmental safety record. Since 1969, there have been only a handful of major spills from drilling (that is, spills with over 1,000 barrels of oil leaking)  and the most significant occurred decades ago.  There’s a reason Obama touted the safety record of off-shore drilling – the data supported his claim.  Indeed, drilling off shore seemed far safer than relying on oil tankers to import oil from abroad; spills from these vessels (until now) were far more numerous and extensive.

My point here is not to totally absolve the Obama administration from some responsibility for this spill.  But the media focus on his handling of the spill and in overseeing the MMS obscures the fact that it is Congress that is largely responsible for signaling to the MMS that its primary mission, when issuing drilling permits, is not protecting the environment, but instead protecting the government’s revenue stream.

The MMS operates in a political environment that is best described, in the words of political scientist James Q. Wilson, as “clientele” politics.  (Some of you may recognize the more common phrase “iron triangle” which is a version of clientele politics.)  In this policy context, the President and his political appointees, including Salazar, rarely exercise lasting influence. Instead minerals management policies tend to be made in a closely-knit network consisting of agency officials, representatives of the affected industries, and congressional oversight committees.  Given this fact, I have little hope that Salazar’s organizational remedy – splitting the MMS permitting process off from its environmental regulatory side – will have much impact.  Under the reorganization, both the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which will supervise traditional energy development in federal waters, and the new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), will still report to the same individual overseeing the Interior Department’s land and minerals management.  (A third organization – the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) will take over the MMS’ royalty and revenue functions.)

Government agencies are created for a purpose.  They develop a mission, which is how they define their purpose, and they organize their functions to most effectively achieve that mission.  The MMS’ mission was not defined as weighing environmental concerns during the permitting process.  It was to insure that the government received full compensation for leasing federal property to energy companies. Whenever the MMS found itself embroiled in controversy, it almost always centered on congressional complaints about this function – not the environmental aspects of the permitting process.

The real story, one that the Times and other news agencies are missing,  is not  ethical lapses or mismanagement at MMS – it is that the MMS typically did precisely what Congress wanted it to do, and – news reports about is dysfunctional nature notwithstanding – generally did it well. Given its mission, and the climate in which it operates, the “organizational” reforms Salazar has instituted on Obama’s behalf will likely have little long range effect.  It is Congress that must change the MMS.  To date it has had little incentive to do so.  I am not optimistic that in the long run the Gulf oil spill will change this.

P.S. Don’t forget to visit the MMS website for kids!  There’s cool things to see and do! Learn about “tide pool” math!  Play “Watts It to You!”   Sweet.

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.