Gulf Oil Disaster of 2010: Where progressives behave like birthers


Image by uscgd8 via Flickr


This morning, the poet Mark Doty declared on his Facebook page that he no longer supports Barack Obama. The final straw? BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

It’s clear that power in Louisiana rests not with any government, but with BP, while the response of the Obama administration is lame and late. Sound familiar? And the administration has just won a court case allowing for indefinite detention of suspects in Afghanistan without charges, no right of appeal. I expected centrist politics from the President. I didn’t expect Bush II. I’m done. End of support.

Although he gets paid to think–Doty is a professor at Rutgers University–the poet is just serving as a wind sock in this debate, turning with the tide of public opinion, as well as with a spill, a gusher–one might even say a blowout–of progressive thinkers condemning the Obama Administration because of BP’s accident in the Gulf.

What Doty doesn’t seem to know is that the Oil Pollution Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, restricts government involvement in oil spills to a supervisory role. The law was designed to avoid the situation that followed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, in which the government was left to clean up a private company’s mess and then had to sue the company to recover costs.

The same act restricts the liability of oil companies to $75 million, although they remain fully responsible for completing the clean up. That’s why BP is required to clean up its own mess. As the White House pointed out in a blog post yesterday, they’re also the ones who have the equipment.

As for “late and lame,” a reference to Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, actual analyses of the government’s oil-spill response have found that it is neither:

While the Obama administration has faced second-guessing about the speed and effectiveness of some of its actions, a narrative pieced together by The Associated Press, based on documents, interviews and public statements, shows little resemblance to Katrina in either the characterization of the threat or the federal government’s response….

The AP review found that the administration — aware of the political scars left on the Bush White House over Katrina — moved early with rescue efforts. Also, the government knew within days that while no leak had been found, the potential for environmental harm existed.

From day to day, as the situation evolved from devastating fire and dramatic rescue to a possible environmental hazard, the response activities changed, too, according to documents and interviews.

via Associated Press

Doty, like untold thousands of progressives frustrated by the continuing disaster in the Gulf, interprets his own lack of knowledge as a lack of action by Obama. One could actually investigate the facts, but it’s easier to cling to them to justify participation in this wave of misplaced populist anger.

I’ve written to Mark Doty and posted some of these facts on his Facebook page, but he has not responded. If he follows the pattern of other progressives, however, the facts won’t matter.

Here’s Doty’s response: “That’s a twenty year old law that clearly is inadequate to the moment. Are we supposed to sit back and think that’s a good idea? While the Gulf dies?”

No, we don’t want to do that, and now Doty and I are arguing about when it’s correct for the president to break the law, and according to whose values. We believe it’s clearly right in this case, just as clearly as Bush believed it was right when he broke the law to imprison people without due process at Guantanamo.

Earlier this weekend another poet wrote “Oil Spill… Spill!? It’s a Freakin Mother Geiser- Gusher!! When are you going to move on this Travesty Mr. President!??” Her demand, and the demand of other commenters, has been that the government should step in and “stop the spill.”

Informed about the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, she wrote, “I believe there are exceptions to every rule (law) and in this instance justified. Otherwise, we continue to stand on the sidelines fanning, not squelching the flames!!”

Populist anger inspired and perpetuated by ignorance of the facts, remaining undeterred by the facts: it’s not terribly different from those who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya and who continue to believe it even when shown his birth certificate. The certificate is probably a forgery, they insist.

One respondent to Doty’s declaration insists it’s time to “rebuild our government from the ground up starting on a local level. I think Andrew Cuomo, candidate for NY Governor, has some excellent ideas as does Jerry Brown of California; Mike Gravel and the national initiative for direct democracy is an invaluable idea that bears attention; Ralph Nader is always spot on; the Green Party of the United States has ideas and actions….”

Substitute those names with the likes of Rand Paul or Mark Williams, substitute “Tea Party” for “Green Party” and you’ve got yourself a nice right-wing rant.

It’s not a bad idea to put pressure on the government. It will probably be met with more attention to the Gulf and more vigor from the White House, if only in the form of better management of information. But it goes too far to categorically withdraw support for Obama based on BP’s disaster.

What no progressive seems to consider is that a weakened Obama probably will not be replaced by Ralph Nader or Jerry Brown. Only two years ago, we had a White House full of oil company executives, who are far more likely to return to power than the “Uncompromising Man” or “Governor Moonbeam.”

If Bush’s men do surf back into power, it will be on a wave of populist anger.

UPDATED with more information on Oil Pollution Act:

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires oil companies to draft response plans to oil spills. The very point of that requirement is to force the “responsible parties” to conduct the cleanup themselves, with government oversight.

Here’s Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who is supervising the spill response, in the AP: “As simple as it may seem, the law prevents the government from just taking over, Allen said. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Congress dictated that oil companies be responsible for dealing with major accidents — including paying for all cleanup — with oversight by federal agencies.”

Here’s Roy Hann, director of the Center for Oil Spill technology, on the Oil Pollution Act: “OPA relies on private resources to mitigate or remove spills.”

The extensive federal regulations that flowed from the Oil Pollution Act require government officials–if they conclude the responsible party is acting with malfeasance–to advise the responsible party of that fact, then to inform the responsible party of potential federal expenses, and at all times to strive to maintain the responsible party’s role in mitigation and removal. And before the government could sensibly oust the responsible party from its role in mitigation and removal, it would have to possess the resources to do the job itself.

“What makes this an unprecedented anomalous event is access to the discharge site is controlled by the technology that was used for the drilling, which is owned by the private sector,” Allen said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They have the eyes and ears that are down there. They are necessarily the modality by which this is going to get solved.”

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