Preliminary reports issued on Wednesday by the national oil spill commission indicated that the Obama administration covered up the worst-case – and as it turned out most accurate – estimates of the amount of crude released into the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April. Charges of “cover up” are flying about the blogosphere, but there’s another side to this story. Regular readers of FPM know that your humble correspondent is a scientist who has been employed in the environmental industry for decades. Accordingly, my perspective here is going to be a little different than what you will read or hear in other places. At the end of this tale, it will be necessary to throw the Obama administration under the bus over its approach to the spill, but not for the reasons most other commentators will be moved to do so. For Obama’s biggest error was not in suppressing information that suggested that more oil was being released, but rather in failing to inject calmness and reason into a discussion that grew ever more hysterical with each passing day.
One motivation for the administration burying the worst-case spill estimates is the fact that Obama and some his supporters in Congress have received millions in contributions from BP employees and BP funded PACs over the years. According to Politico, “Obama received a total of $77,051 from the oil giant and is the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money over the past 20 years.” It would be foolish to dismiss this aspect of the story out of hand, yet there was another factor at work as crude continued to gush out into the Gulf this summer. The Obama administration suddenly found itself facing the same “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choice that industry routinely faces whenever it is forced to divulge an environmental incident.
Several federal laws and regulations force industry to self-disclose such an incident when it occurs. How you disclose is a tricky question. If you employ a conservative approach and report the worst-case scenario, doing so provides ammunition to environmental activists and the media who will use it to demonize you to a public that doesn’t have the skills to put the incident in any reasonable context. If you’re more upbeat about reporting the extent of the problem, you take the chance that initial estimates will be proven incorrect as the investigation continues and you will thus be accused of suppressing information. Since this administration has virtually zero real world experience in dealing with environmental issues, it’s not surprising that they chose the latter course. That’s not to excuse the fact that they suppressed data, but is rather an explanation. Their reaction, in other words, doesn’t appear to have been so much a conscious effort to conceal and cover up, but is instead, another example of the naiveté and lack of real world experience that Obama and his advisors displays on an almost daily basis.
When it comes to the Gulf, the administration’s biggest failure was that it did nothing to diffuse the wild, doomsday discussions that flew around the internet and throughout the mainstream media, as the well continued to spew crude. Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez were routinely linked in media outlets throughout the summer, but the two incidents could not have been more different. The Exxon/Valdez spill occurred in cold, relatively enclosed coastal waters. The Deepwater Horizon leak encompassed a vast area of warm water. The difference matters. Mother Nature, contrary to popular opinion, can be a tough old broad. In Prince William Sound, the site of the Exxon Valdez disaster, there wasn’t much chance for oil to disperse and because of the climate, natural biological activity couldn’t do much to clean up the spill. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, on the other hand, are teaming with microbial life which will happily chew up crude oil, even as that oil continued to disperse and evaporate. Obama’s Energy Czar, Carol Browner, belatedly acknowledged this phenomenon, when she declared that most of the oil is “gone” during an interview on NBC’s Today Show. It wasn’t actually “gone” at the time, but those natural, self-correcting mechanisms, didn’t allow the spill to have nearly the effect that the doom-sayers had predicted. What oil microbes hadn’t eaten yet, had been diluted or evaporated into insignificance.
However, the administration now finds itself tied into patently ridiculous, contradictory positions. The spill in the Gulf was a disaster big enough to warrant a ban on any further deep-water oil drilling, even though it didn’t actually cause all that much environmental harm. They suppressed worst-case estimates of the leak, but those estimates were proven correct at the end of the day. Today, many an industrial operator can be forgiven for considering the Obama administration’s response to this “crisis” and quietly observing: “welcome to my world.”
The President missed an opportunity, although it’s hard to believe he would have jumped at it, even if he had been aware of it. Had he had the courage to put the Deepwater Horizon spill into some reasonable perspective when the explosion happened, rather than let Carol Browner do so six months after the fact, Obama could have taken the wind out the sails of the worst of the radical environmentalists who have done so much damage to this country. No President in modern times could have had done more to restore balance and sanity within the environmental arena. Clearly, if George W. Bush had appealed for restraint if such an incident had occurred during his watch, environmental interests would have demonized him for defending his big oil buddies. No one would attempt to tar and feather Barack Obama with the same brush. He could have said – should have said – that no matter how bad the spill was, the combination of clean up efforts and naturally-corrective mechanisms would ultimately take care of the problem. Instead, the President tried desperately to have his cake and eat it too: declaring at the time that the Gulf oil spill was an unprecedented ecological disaster, even as he now tries to minimize the incident and the way his administration responded to the problem.