The Obama administration has blamed former president George W. Bush for everything from dandruff and “ring around the collar” to General McChrystal’s insubordination and the Gulf Oil Spill.
When it come to the Gulf Oil Spill disaster, the usual Obama charge does not stick. Much of the criticism directed toward the president has surrounded his delay in cleaning up the spill (a delay that continues through today). What has not been widely reported is the fact that the Obama administration could have prevented the spill had it heeded a multitude of warnings. Today the WSJ is reporting that last April, over a year before the Deepwater Horizon blew up, the administration received a loud alarm about the dangers of offshore oil drillig.
The alarm was rung by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., which found that the government was unprepared for a major spill at sea, relying on an “irrational” environmental analysis of the risks of offshore drilling.
The April 2009 ruling stunned both the administration and the oil industry, and threatened to delay or cancel dozens of offshore projects in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite its pro-environment pledges, the Obama administration urged the court to revisit the decision. Politically, it needed to push ahead with conventional oil production while it expanded support for renewable energy.
Energy was not the only reason, there was also money:
Another reason: money. In its arguments to the court, the government said that the loss of royalties on the oil, estimated at almost $10 billion, “may have significant financial consequences for the federal government.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed its decision and allowed drilling in the Gulf to proceed—including on BP PLC’s now-infamous Macondo well, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
Can’t blame that one on Bush.
Still, the administration defends its intervention in the court case, and says the ruling made it look more cautiously at whether to open new areas to offshore drilling. It pins blame on the Bush administration for pursuing a policy for deep-offshore drilling “that was driven by one principle: open everything,” said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.
OK maybe they can.
Mr. Obama inherited a slew of energy challenges when he took office in early 2009. The agency within the Interior Department charged with overseeing the oil and gas industry, the Minerals Management Service, was reeling from scandals. An inspector general’s report months earlier had described rigged contracts, drug use and sex between MMS employees and industry representatives.
Along with cleaning up the MMS, Interior had to wrestle with a five-year drilling plan the Bush administration had filed just days before leaving office. The plan sought to open the waters in most of the U.S. outer-continental shelf to oil and gas exploration between 2010 and 2015. The push into ever deeper waters in the Gulf, which began in earnest in the mid-1990s, reflected the reality that drilling in shallower waters was largely tapped out.
But at the same time the Obama administration canceled leases that would have allowed drilling on land.
The tensions in the administration’s own deliberations were clear from the start. Mr. Obama’s Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, quickly picked a fight with the oil industry when he retroactively withdrew 77 oil-and-gas lease sales in Utah that the Bush administration had approved in its final weeks. The move drew applause from environmentalists and criticism from oil companies.
This is not to say that the president was wrong to push off shore drilling, but he was wrong to ignore the warnings of April 2009 and he was wrong to cancel the leases for drilling on land.
To navigate Capitol Hill, the administration needed to strike a balance between the “green energy” projects favored by environmentalists and liberals, and the traditional oil and gas projects favored by Republicans, whose support would be crucial in the Senate. Continuing to promote offshore drilling was part of that bargain.
But the federal appeals court decision, which came just days after Mr. Salazar’s tour, threatened to throw a wrench in that process. The case was brought two years earlier by indigenous Alaskans and a coalition of environmental groups. It challenged a Bush-era plan to lease large chunks of offshore Alaska to oil drilling.
The groups argued the strategy didn’t adequately account for the whole range of environmental perils raised by oil drilling on the outer shelf.
The appeals court agreed, ruling that the federal program was based on “irrational” analysis. The government’s own assessment, the court found, weighed only the impact of oil washing up on shorelines. In a foreshadowing of the post-spill debate, the court noted that the analysis didn’t address the impact of a significant spill further out at sea.
At first, Mr. Salazar used the ruling as a way to draw a distinction between his approach and that of the Bush White House. Blasting what he called “the previous administration’s failure to apply the law,” Mr. Salazar said in a statement that he planned to “fix the problems” the court identified. He would do so not by firing managers or shaking up MMS, but by subjecting offshore drilling to heightened scrutiny. Those fixes, he said, would “put oil and gas leasing decisions back on a firm scientific footing.”
All of this happened a year before the Deepwater Horizon disaster and there were warnings from other sources.
On Sept. 21, Jane Lubchenco, Mr. Obama’s handpicked head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, filed a lengthy comment on the Bush-era drilling plan still under review. She cited several concerns, including the government’s tendency to underestimate the likelihood of oil spills and to downplay their potential environmental impacts. She also noted the government’s penchant for cribbing from older, often outdated, environmental analyses.
She cited a Congressional Research Service study from earlier in the year. “The threat of oil spills raises the question,” the report said, “of whether U.S. officials have the necessary resources at hand to respond to a major spill.”
Is the Gulf Oil Spill the Obama Administration’s fault? Not totally, nor is it totally the fault of George “W” Bush or previous presidents. Each of those presidents who prevented drilling on land or the inner continental shelf immediate shoreline deserve to share in the blame. But it is totally disingenuous for our Finger-pointer-in-chief to place the blame toward others when he shared in creating the problem.
You can read more of Jeff’s writing at his website, Jeffdunetz.com