Oil Spill is Not Obama's Katrina

Oil Spill is Not Obama's Katrina

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Sarah Palin was predictable. She knocked President Obama for, as she put it in garbled colloquialism, failing to “dive in there” and fix the Gulf spill disaster. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and a rash of GOP senators were slightly more grammatically intelligible when they pounced on Obama for being too cozy with BP, and not pulling out all stops to staunch the spill.

The GOP’s political attack plan is crude and transparent: Compare the Gulf spill to Bush’s Katrina bumble, liken Obama to Bush and heap the same blame on him.

But there’s a big difference. Before Katrina hit, government tracking systems, weather satellites, and countless news reports warned that the hurricane potentially posed a grave threat to New Orleans and the Gulf. Bush administration officials knew this. They also knew that the sea walls there were in terrible shape and could give way. When the storm hit, Bush hesitated, dithered, and minimized the immediate impact of the storm, and made no effort to counter the wild, sensational and thoroughly false reports of looting, rape and vandalism. The colossal loss of property, the thousands dead and injured, the horrendous displacement of residents were the direct result of government ineptitude.

Five years later thousands remain uprooted, and whole neighborhoods remain gutted. New Orleans and the Gulf are still paying the high price for Bush’s abysmal delay. After an international army of volunteers and donors sped aid and relief to the area, Bush eventually  kicked relief efforts into high gear.

Obama’s response to the Gulf spill stands in stark contrast. He sent cabinet secretaries, and an armada of Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA and Coast Guard personnel, engineers, scientists, technicians and clean-up workers to the Gulf; more than 20,000 responders in all. There are multiple staging areas, and ships in the area involved in the clean-up. Nearly 2 million feet of containment boom, and a million gallons of chemical dispersant have been used to fight the spill. Obama has asked Congress for $130 million for clean-up operations. The White House has churned out reams of releases, statements, and reports to keep the public updated on the progress and problems in containing the spill.

Obama correctly points the blame finger at BP and oil executives for their duck and dodge of full responsibility for the spill, and their inability to successfully contain it. They deserve the blame. But as environmental disasters go, offshore drilling spills are rare. The industry’s 40-year safety record on drilling has been fairly good. But the BP mess shows that all it takes is one drill disaster to cancel out the industry’s record and paint the industry as a greedy, safety-plagued, environmentally irresponsible menace.

The spill should be a wake-up call on the potential and real hazards of ultra deep water oil drilling, and the urgent need to devise new and better safety and equipment standards and controls. The Obama administration has been hands-on in supervising BP’s efforts to stop the spill. This provides it the important learning curve on the need for the government to ramp up oversight and monitoring of the industry; and beyond that, the Obama administration needs to rethink and reexamine the potentially devastating environmental hazards of expanded offshore drilling as well as its potential to dent America’s shackles of energy dependence.

Public opinion polls now show that more than half of Americans say they disapprove of Obama’s handling of the disaster. An even bigger percentage says they have no confidence in the government’s ability to prevent another spill. The public’s heightened jitters over the spill are understandable given the nightmare environmental messes that the oil industry has made in the past. The public is also right to be deeply suspicious and outraged over the far too lax and cozy relationship between government regulatory agencies and the oil industry.

To Palin and the GOP, the Gulf spill is not solely an environmental catastrophe nor is it an issue of government officials being in bed with the oil industry. If the latter was the case they should point the same finger at themselves for their sweetheart relations with the oil industry. According to the Sunlight Foundation, BP has dumped $6 million in campaign contributions to congresspersons in past years. Seven of the top 10 recipients of BP contributions have been GOP senators and congresspersons, including GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But the facts are irrelevant. The Gulf spill is simply too juicy a political opportunity for the GOP to pass up to ream President Obama for a disaster that he could not foresee, did not make, and has made the best effort to solve. What better way to hammer the message home than to call the Gulf spill Obama’s Katrina -- a politically loaded term, even if it’s a bogus call?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge" (Middle Passage Press).