There are obvious limits to how much control the federal government can exert over the frantic and so far hapless effort to stem the catastrophic oil eruption that threatens the entire Gulf of Mexico with ecological devastation. As Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said Monday, the government does not have the equipment or technical expertise to simply shove aside BP and its industry partners a month after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana. “To push BP out of the way, it would raise the question, to replace them with what?” Allen said.
The Obama administration’s embattled and frustrated Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who on Sunday had threatened to do the pushing, recognized the sobering reality 24 hours later. “This administration has done everything we can possibly do to make sure that we push BP to stop the spill and to contain the impact,” Salazar said. “We have also been very clear that there are areas where BP and the private sector are the ones who must continue to lead the efforts with government oversight, such as the deployment of private sector technology 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to kill the well.”
But if government has little choice but to keep the perpetrator on the job at the immediate crime scene, it does have a choice when it comes to operations beyond the urgent task of quelling the erupting well. BP will necessarily remain in charge of plugging the hole; but the federal and state governments in the gulf must take greater charge of containing the onshore ecological impacts.
This requires a greater mobilization than exists today, and Washington needs to send the message that it is in full command of the disaster response with the following actions:
- One highly visible leader at the White House should lead the command and coordination at the cabinet level between the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy, the EPA, the Department of Justice, the White House Office of Energy and Climate Policy, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the Department of Defense. Two excellent choices for this role would be Vice President Joe Biden or energy advisor Carol Browner. This leader should also work directly with the affected states’ governors.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency should be in charge of onshore coastal recovery and disaster response, assisted by the Army Corps of Engineers. The National Guard should be fully deployed under the control of each state’s governor, with Army units if necessary. The EPA, NOAA, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should exercise relevant oversight. And any environmental and disaster response contractors working for BP should instead work directly for the federal government.
- The federal government should clearly be in charge of surface-water recovery and maritime disaster response. The Vessels of Opportunity and other maritime contractors now working for BP should be under contract with the federal government, including research vessels. The Coast Guard with the EPA, NOAA, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversight should manage dispersant use for cleanup.
- The Environmental Protection Agency should immediately bar BP from new federal contracts—including drilling in federally controlled oil fields—because of its repeated environmental crimes.
- The State Department should continue to reach out to other nations that have experience with disastrous oil spills to see if assistance and ideas are available. This should be a government-to-government effort, not one undertaken by private companies.
- Claims for damages and lost revenues should be put under the authority of the U.S. Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center. The scope of this disaster far exceeds the NPFC’s traditional resources, and other federal, state, and local claims processing resources must therefore be brought to bear, particularly from the Coast Guard’s sister agency FEMA.
- The EPA, the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and other law enforcement branches of the federal, state, and local government should exercise subpoena authority to seize or monitor relevant communications and data collection, and assets if necessary.
- The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should begin a health-monitoring program for the most at risk populations so there is a baseline from which to measure health complications from the spill and cleanup.
- Federal agencies, not BP, should handle spill response hotlines for volunteers, technology ideas, affected wildlife, and others. Full call records need to be logged with incident reports and technology ideas presented publicly on dynamic websites.
BP is required as the responsible party for this apocalyptic disaster to provide full and instant funding for the response by the federal, state, and local governments and their contractors. BP personnel and equipment being used for disaster response in the Gulf should be put under governmental control during the crisis.
BP’s funding should come in the form of an escrow account that draws on BP’s $100 billion in capital reserves, without limit. The federal government should require BP to use its first quarter 2010 profits—$5 billion—to establish the escrow account. Congress needs to pass the Big Oil Liability Bailout Prevention Act, S. 3305, to lift the liability limit to $10 billion.
The Center for American Progress also supports a full moratorium on new leases or new drilling for all companies until the commission issues its report and recommendations. The Department of Interior has approved at least 17 new permits and 19 environmental waivers since the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.
Congress and the administration must meanwhile take further steps to end our dependence on big oil. The administration should beef up federal research and development efforts into how to prevent oil spills and better contain them if they occur. The federal government should establish additional protection for continental shelf areas beyond just the three miles states can control. Congress should cut tax loopholes and other handouts to big oil companies, which would save $45 billion over 10 years—money that can be spent on investing in a clean energy economy instead. And clean energy legislation that caps the oil and coal pollution that is heating the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans is long overdue.
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