Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cleaning up another mess...

Since the explosion, sinking and massive oil spill resulting from British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster more than a month ago, BP and the federal government have been struggling to find a solution to what could become the largest man made disaster – ever.

During the period since the horror first erupted in the Gulf of Mexico, we’ve seen the spill expand to beaches throughout the Gulf. We’ve seen BP downplay the severity – time and again. And we’ve watched the current administration present its biggest example yet that it is a presidency best characterized as “learning on the job.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Barack Obama...

For BP’s part, it’s difficult to imagine that a company this big and this experienced did not plan (better) for a “worst-case scenario.” While they’ve continued to bumble on the PR front, their engineers (God love ‘em) have been trying everything and anything to find a “magic bullet.” The first containment dome failed…froze-up. The “big straw” – an effort to suck spewing oil up to nearby ships – didn’t make a dent. “Top kill,” pumping heavy mud into the wellhead in an effort to seal it, didn’t do it. The “junk shot” – trying to stuff debris (including golf balls and old tires) into the hole – worked about as good as you’d imagine something called a “junk shot” would.
While BP has at least been trying every trick in the book – and some that aren’t – the feds have been doing bupkis. (OK, the Coast Guard has been doing their usual stellar job but the administration’s response has been, um, lacking.)

My friend and colleague, Tunku Varadarajan (writing for The Daily Beast), however, feels that it’s wrong to blame Barack Obama: “Writers have been free with their superlatives of calamity, the most common being a likening of the spill to Hurricane Katrina: ‘Obama’s Katrina,’ many have written, glibly judgmental. And going one step further up the ladder of shrillness, Thomas Friedman, the Emperor of Glib, has been imperiously judgmental, calling the spill ‘Obama’s 9/11.’ The oil spill is none of the above. It is not even ‘Obama’s oil spill,’ if by saying so we mean to ascribe culpability to the president. He didn’t run the rigs, or oversee the plans, or grant the licenses to drill, or write the rules that govern the granting of those licenses. He was just president when the bloody thing happened (cf. Bush, 9/11). Not one iota of this sticky mess is Obama’s doing, by any rational calculus of causation.”

Obviously, I agree with Tunku, in that the explosion wasn’t the cause of Obama (or his team), but I also agree with the president’s recent declaration that he’s in charge and, echoing Harry S. Truman, “the buck stops” with him.

Whether it’s now or after the spill is quelled, one of the steps Obama can take to make things better is to cut loose his Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar. It would be unreasonable to expect the president to take blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but during Salazar’s time at the helm of Interior (which has been otherwise unremarkable), the Minerals Management Service (MMS) – the federal agency overseeing offshore oil and natural-gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico – “has been cited again for ‘ethical lapses’ that included allowing rig inspectors and others to receive gifts from oil companies.”

The scapegoat, Elizabeth Birnbaum. Acknowledged as a "smart and hardworking administrator," Birnbaum took charge of the MMS two months after the department, part of the Department of the Interior (Ken Salazar, secretary), had already OK'd Deepwater Horizon's operations.

What’s more, Salazar (likely under orders from Rahm “The Godfather” Emanuel) – in an effort to produce a scalp for Congress – dumped one of his own, Elizabeth Birnbaum. According to The Washington Post, “Salazar, a politically savvy former senator from Colorado, responded that he had lost confidence in Elizabeth Birnbaum, the director of the Minerals Management Service, adding that he would soon be making changes. The next morning, Salazar and his deputy secretary David Hayes knocked on Birnbaum's office door and told her they planned to move her to another job; she resigned instead.”

The president checks out oil on a beach pre-cleaned by BP...

According to a report by Sharyl Attkison at, “Birnbaum's departure was first reported as a "firing." Later, a "resignation." When asked for clarity, President Obama told the press corps today he had no idea.

CBS White House Correspondent Chip Reid: "Did she resign? Was she fired? Was she forced out? And if so, why?"

Obama: "I found out about her resignation today,so I don't know the circumstances in which this occurred."

The incredulous press corps followed up.

Reporter: "How is it that you didn't know about Ms. Birnbaum's resignation/firing before?"

Obama: "Well, you're assuming it was a firing. If it was a resignation, then she would have submitted a letter to Mr. Salazar this morning at a time when I had a whole bunch of other stuff going on... Come on, I don't know. I'm telling you I found out about it this morning. So I don't yet know the circumstances, and Ken Salazar has been in testimony on the Hill."

The Post article goes on to say that “Birnbaum's abrupt departure, coming just 10 months after she had taken the agency's helm, says more about the Obama administration's inability to improve MMS and the industry it regulates than Birnbaum herself. Facing a historically troubled agency, Salazar and his top deputies focused first on promoting easy-to-achieve changes…rather than conducting a broad agency overhaul.”

The mess gets worse...

Finally, when he had a chance to show some form of leadership, Salazar impressed no one as he toured affected areas of the Gulf coast with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and a group of U.S. senators, bragging to reporters that, "We will keep our boot on their [BP’s] neck until the job gets done.” That’s some fine work there, Kenny.

Let’s remember, that for all of Salazar’s big boot pronouncements and subordinate axing, he’s long been a friend of Big Oil. A story in The Nation reminds us that, “Salazar certainly believes in offshore oil drilling, but whether he can be trusted to regulate it is another matter. One wouldn't know it from his recent public statements, but Ken Salazar has long been one of the strongest advocates of offshore oil drilling in Washington. In 2008, as a Democratic Senator from Colorado, he criticized the Bush-Cheney administration for not doing enough to promote offshore drilling. In 2006, Sen. Salazar was the architect of the Gulf of Mexico Economic Security Act, which opened eight million acres of the Gulf to drilling. In 2009, as Interior Secretary, Salazar oversaw his department's lease of 55 million acres of the Gulf for oil and gas drilling.”

The author (no Big Oil-loving conservative) finishes with this viewpoint: “If Obama truly wants to chart a new course in dealing with the BP disaster and accelerating America's transition to a clean energy future, he should start by requesting Ken Salazar's resignation.”

Yes, that’s another way Obama could begin cleaning up this mess.

No comments: