Editorial: Well past time to expect action, results on oil spill

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

"The time for considerin' is over," one of those victims of the Gulf oil spill faced with the loss of his livelihood said on CNN on Tuesday after the president's first prime-time, Oval Office address to the nation.

If you want the national reaction to Barack Obama's 18-minute response to this crisis in a nutshell, that's pretty much it. The "No Drama Obama" routine is not quite working. When he does try to show some passion, even uttering a minor profanity to express his displeasure with British Petroleum, it seems forced, awkward.

In any event, the nation has had enough of empathy, and now it wants action. Indeed, you don't have to be a hardcore tree hugger to be sickened by scenes of oil fouling the Gulf and washing up on coastal beaches in gobs, and to want it to stop. As such there was a lot riding on this speech.

As Obama's rhetorical efforts go, this one left us a little flat, despite the war-like tone. The grandiosity of the language here - "We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes" - came off as inappropriate in that it's not the beaches of Normandy we're storming on behalf of democracy but the beaches of Pensacola we're trying to save on behalf of vacationers and fishermen. That's not to downplay the enormity of this environmental catastrophe, now widely acknowledged as America's worst ever, but to say that what the country needs now is not "we shall never surrender" Winston Churchill so much as get-'er-done Harry Truman.

The president promised to share "what we're doing to clean up the oil, what we're doing to help our neighbors in the Gulf, and what we're doing to make that a catastrophe like this never happens again," but then provided few specifics as to what Uncle Sam is actually doing ... beyond authorizing the deployment of 17,000 National Guard members to the Gulf Coast, authorizing the construction of barrier islands off the coast of Louisiana and the dropping of booms to hopefully block and absorb the oil, authorizing some new bureaucracy, authorizing another "national commission" to investigate what went wrong, authorizing the hiring of a new face to lead the fundamentally broken Minerals Management Service, and - never to waste a perfectly good crisis - authorizing continued emphasis on passage of a comprehensive energy bill if those darn Republicans would just go along.

We're not saying those authorizations aren't necessary, just that we're nearly two months into this spill and the White House should have acted more swiftly, like two months ago, to confront it, establishing a clear chain of command as to who'd be making the decisions - we still don't have that, not really - rather than sitting back, watching BP fumble and declaring the company solely responsible. That should have included the acceptance of help offered by other nations with the equipment and expertise the U.S. and BP lack to deal with this. Those reinforcements - in capping the gusher, in collecting the oil, in containing the spread - should already be here, not on their way. If the president is willing to resort to prayer now, why not also their assistance?

Look, this is not Obama's Katrina, despite the best efforts of critics to portray it that way. Uncle Sam knew what had to be and could be done after the hurricane - the victims displaced and stranded in New Orleans needed food, medical care and shelter - and the Bush administration still managed to bungle it. The White House and most everybody else are in uncharted territory with a spill this large and this deep, which has "tested the limits of human technology." Nonetheless, it seems clear the Obama administration underestimated the environmental, economic and political damage this could do. Suffice it to say, they no longer do.

Oh, the speech did have its moments, primarily in getting the attention of BP executives, who on Wednesday got a spanking at the White House that ultimately had them agreeing to suspend dividend payments, compensate unemployed oil workers and set aside $20 billion, for now, in an escrow account, with claims on it divvied out not by BP but an independent third party (reportedly Kenneth Feinberg, who supervised the 9-11 victims compensation fund). That's no small amount, even for a company of the size and profitability of BP, but then the U.S. government has no small amount of leverage with oil companies, not only through its ability to impose considerable fines but through its leasing - or not - of drilling rights on federal property (often lucrative for both sides). Obama has repeatedly said that BP will pay all the costs of fixing what it broke, not taxpayers. We'll see, but that would be a relief in deficit-spending America.

Meanwhile, the central fact remains that the oil continues to flow into the Gulf and to head toward the U.S. mainland. It's now estimated at 2.5 million gallons a day, which is mind-boggling, though the president provides a vague reassurance that it all should end sometime "later in the summer." We'd venture that many an American would say that's not good enough.

No one should expect too much of a speech. Ultimately President Obama will be judged not on his words Tuesday but on his actions.

The Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.