In Defense of Obama - Government Takeover Won’t Clean Up Oil Disaster

In Defense of Obama - Government Takeover Won’t Clean Up Oil Disaster

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Former Secretary of State Colin Powell minced no words in a talk with ABC News. Powell said President Obama should muscle BP aside and move in with “decisive force.” The general had one thing in mind, and that’s a military response and seizure of the operation. Powell thinks and talks like a hard-nosed military man. So his demand for a military solution to the BP spill is understandable. Powell didn’t say how the government, let alone the military, could cap the runaway well and insure that it stay capped. But Powell and the wave of media pundits, politicians, and much of the public still shout at Obama to impose a total government takeover of the operation. The shout is futile and wrongheaded. The Obama critics shout it at him in part to beat up on him, and in part out of ignorance at what the government can do.

When a hazardous substance poses a major threat to the health and well-being of U.S. citizens, the president can invoke provisions of the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act to take full charge. But the BP spill is in international waters and technically federal law doesn’t apply to that. Even if the government makes the compelling legal case that the BP spill poses a grave enough threat for government agencies or the military to step in, then what? Every credible military expert who’s weighed in on what the military can do if it were called on to take over the cap and control of an errant offshore drill operation has said that it would be totally lost. Its deep sea technical capability and undersea imager technology is too limited, and untested in this kind of complex operation. The bitter pill that the public must swallow – according to every scientist, engineer, and technician who’s weighed in on the spill -- is that BP created the problem, and despite its flop so far in fixing it, it has the technology and expertise to do the job. The military and government agencies can take over containment, cleanup and construction. But the government has dispatched more than 20,000 responders, dozens of ships, and floating operation stations that are doing those functions.

Government agencies can bar any company that engages in fraudulent, reckless or criminal conduct from doing business with the government. Given BP’s dismissal of safety rules, costing dozens of lives and maiming and injuring many others, the pile of lawsuits against it, and the lies its officials have told regulators and investigators about its operations, a solid case could be made that the government can and should bar BP from government business.

But there are problems with this. BP is the largest oil and gas producer in the Gulf of Mexico and operates some 22,000 oil and gas wells across the country. It is a top supplier of fuel to the military, and employs thousands. The disbarment process would take at least a year, and either BP, the military, or -- incredible as it sounds -- another government agency can claim in court that disbarment would pose a monumental national security risk to the country. This is not academic speculation. In the past when BP came under fire for legal and environmental malfeasance, these concerns were raised, and the talk of disbarment quickly fizzled.

Then there’s the clamor for indictments and jail. Attorney General Eric Holder says he’ll look seriously at criminal charges against BP.

But it would take months, even years, to build a case that BP executives willfully intended to commit the violations. That’s a nearly insurmountable legal bar. The best that can be hoped for are hefty civil penalties, fines and settlements. That’s been the case in the past with Exxon and BP, and the oil giants didn’t miss a beat. They were back to business as usual.

The BP spill is not solely about what Obama can or should do. The catastrophe is a political grenade that Sarah Palin, the GOP, Tea Party activists, and the pack of rightwing talk jocks have eagerly tossed at Obama to tar him as a weak, ineffectual leader, and grab more seats from the Democrats in the November elections. When the first drop oozed out of the well, if Obama had declared a national security emergency, sent in the troops, and clamped the cuffs on BP CEOs, the Obama bashers would have screamed dictator, heavy- handed government interference, and socialist takeover. When that didn’t happen, they dredged up the phony comparison to Bush’s Katrina bungle and reamed him for being cautious, vacillating, and sending out mixed signals.

The BP spill is the perfect storm of political one-upmanship and environmental catastrophe. This insures that the shout for Obama to do what he can’t do with BP – that is, muscle BP aside -- will get even louder.

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).

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