A month after the BP Deep Horizon drill rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama has moved to take greater political control of what is becoming one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters.
On Saturday, Obama named a bipartisan commission to report on the causes of the oil spill but also “to take a comprehensive look at how the oil and gas industry operates and how we regulate them.”
While environmental protection and domestic energy production are the main issues here, there’s also a clear political dimension to finding answers and acting deliberately to prevent future spills.
"There is a strong tendency for the public to penalize incumbents even for natural disasters if there is a plausible governmental angle – regardless of whether the government failed to respond adequately," Eric Schickler, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkley, told Reuters. "If the oil spill has a significant impact on the Gulf Coast economy – and as a result, on the U.S. economy as a whole – it is likely to impose at least some damage on the president and his party."
So far, Republicans have not criticized the administration’s handling of the situation. But that may change depending on the impact of the spill on the environment and the regional (and perhaps national) economy.
“The President has spent a whole lot of time pointing the finger at BP, and you should point a finger at BP and the other companies involved in it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday. “We're also interested to know what the administration did. Was the Minerals Management Service a part of this administration that approved this site? It also approved this spill response plan. What kind of oversight did the administration provide during the course of the drilling?”
In his radio address Saturday, Obama – whose administration moved quickly to address the conflicts of interest at the Minerals Management Service – acknowledged this.
“Even as we continue to hold BP accountable, we also need to hold Washington accountable,” he said. “If the laws on our books are inadequate to prevent such an oil spill or if we didn’t enforce those laws – I want to know it. I want to know what worked and what didn’t work in our response to the disaster, and where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down. We know, for example, that a cozy relationship between oil and gas companies and agencies that regulate them has long been a source of concern.”
The seven-member “Bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling” Obama announced Saturday is to report within six months. It is co-chaired by Democrat Bob Graham, former US senator and governor of Florida, and by Republican William Reilly, co-chair of the National Commission on Energy Policy and administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency under former president George H. W. Bush.
In the Republican response Saturday morning, Senator David Vitter (R) of Louisiana chided Democrats in Congress who he said “have rushed to create media events for television cameras instead of devoting full attention to stopping the immediate problem.”
“I guess it’s typical of the culture in Washington for politicians to believe that they can solve an ongoing crisis with statements and testimonies in Congressional committee rooms,” Vitter said, referring to the hearings that have put BP officials in the hotseat. “But the time for committee hearings is for after the well has been capped – not before.”