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Obama’s Oil Spill To-Do List



Rory Cooper
Morning Bell, The Heritage Foundation
June 30, 2010

The oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico gets worse by the day. Oil spews from the broken well, further polluting our water and shores. The clean-up efforts drag on with bureaucratic interference, making matters worse. And what is the Obama administration doing? It continues to push for unrelated responses that will have a disastrous effect on our economy, especially the economy of the Gulf states most affected.

In fact, President Obama summoned a bipartisan group of senators to the White House on Tuesday to discuss his climate change legislation. When Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander suggested that any such energy meeting should include a focus on the oil spill and BP, Obama responded: “that’s just your talking point” and refused to discuss the crisis.

Unfortunately, the American people are not hearing any of this. Day after day, blind allegiance to the president causes his supporters on the left to simply say the government is doing all that it can. The national media, prone to attention deficit disorder when a president they support is in the White House, have already moved on to a myriad of other subjects, offering only sporadic updates on the continuing crisis.

When the president answered questions following the G20 conference, not one reporter asked him about the situation in the Gulf. Not one question. When attention is paid, it is focused on BP, which is only half the story — the other half being government incompetence or an ideological rigidity that prevents commonsense solutions.

The Heritage Foundation has offered a great deal of research and analysis related to the current crisis. It can be found indexed here. Starting today, we will also highlight the top actions the federal government must take immediately to assist the citizens of the Gulf as they cope with this tragedy. As the government responds or acts on these actions, we will directly update this post online to reflect the news and add new actions as we deem appropriate.

Please let us know in the online comments section any other deficiencies we should be monitoring. Until this crisis is resolved, you will be able to find this post, as well as future updates, under our Foundry Features labeled: Oil Spill To-Do List. Without further delay, here are the first ten actions President Obama can take immediately to help solve the crisis in the Gulf.

1. Waive the Jones Act: According to one Dutch newspaper, European firms could complete the oil spill cleanup by themselves in just four months, and three months if they work with the United States, which is much faster than the estimated nine months it would take the Obama administration to go at it alone. The major stumbling block is a protectionist piece of legislation called the Jones Act, which requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flagged ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens. But, in an emergency, this law can be temporarily waived, as DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff did after Katrina. Each day European and Asian allies are prevented from helping us speed up the cleanup is another day that Gulf fishing and tourism jobs die. For more information on this, click here.

2. Accept International Assistance: At least thirty countries and international organizations have offered equipment and experts so far. According to reports this week, the White House has finally decided to accept help from twelve of these nations. The Obama administration should make clear why they are refusing the other eighteen-plus offers. In a statement, the State Department said it is still working out the particulars of the assistance it has accepted. This should be done swiftly as months have already been wasted.

Take Sweden, for example. According to Heritage expert James Carafano: “After offering assistance shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Sweden received a request for information about their specialized assets from the State Department on May 7. Swedish officials answered the inquiry the same day, saying that some assets, such as booms, could be sent within days and that it would take a couple of weeks to send ships. There are three brand new Swedish Coast Guard vessels built for dealing with a major oil spill cleanup. Each has a capacity to collect nearly 50 tons of oil per hour from the surface of the sea and can hold 1,000 tons of spilled oil in their tanks. But according to the State Department’s recently released chart on international offers of assistance, the Swedish equipment and ships are still ‘under consideration.’ So months later, the booms sit unused and brand new Swedish ships still sit idle in port, thousands of miles from the Gulf. The delay in accepting offers of assistance is unacceptable.” For more information, click here or here.

3. Lift the Moratorium: The Obama administration’s over-expansive ban on offshore energy development is killing jobs when they are needed most. A panel of engineering experts told The New Orleans Times-Picayune that they only supported a six-month ban on new drilling in waters deeper than 1,000 feet. Those same experts were consulted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar before he issued his May 27 report recommending a six-month moratorium on all ongoing drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet. A letter from these experts reads: “A blanket moratorium is not the answer. It will not measurably reduce risk further and it will have a lasting impact on the nation’s economy which may be greater than that of the oil spill. We do not believe punishing the innocent is the right thing to do.”

And just how many innocent jobs is Obama’s oil ban killing? An earlier Times-Picayune report estimated the moratorium could cost Louisiana 7,590 jobs and $2.97 billion in revenue directly related to the oil industry. For more information on this, click here.

4. Release the S.S. A-Whale: The S.S. A-Whale skimmer is a converted oil tanker capable of cleaning 500,000 barrels of oil a day from the Gulf waters. Currently, the largest skimmer being used in the clean-up efforts can handle 4,000 barrels a day, and the entire fleet our government has authorized for BP has only gathered 600,000 barrels, total in the 70 days since the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The ship embarked from Norfolk, VA, this week toward the Gulf, hoping to get federal approval to begin assisting the clean-up, but is facing bureaucratic resistance.

As a foreign-flagged ship, the S.S. A-Whale needs a waiver from the Jones Act, but even outside that three-mile limitation, the U.S. Coast Guard and the EPA have to approve its operation due to the nature of its operation, which separates the oil from the water and then releases water back into the Gulf, with a minor amount of oil residue. The government should not place perfection over the need for speed, especially facing the threat of an active hurricane season. For more information on this, click here.

5. Remove State and Local Roadblocks: Local governments are not getting the assistance they need to help in the cleanup. For example, nearly two months ago, officials from Escambia County, Fla., requested permission from the Mobile Unified Command Center to use a sand skimmer, a device pulled behind a tractor that removes oil and tar from the top three feet of sand, to help clean up Pensacola’s beaches. County officials still haven’t heard anything back. Santa Rosa Island Authority Buck Lee explains why: “Escambia County sends a request to the Mobile, Ala., Unified Command Center. Then, it’s reviewed by BP, the federal government, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard. If they don’t like it, they don’t tell us anything.”

State and local governments know their geography, people, economic impacts and needs far better than the federal government does. Contrary to popular belief, the federal government has actually been playing a bigger and bigger role in running natural disaster responses. And as Heritage fellow Matt Mayer has documented, the results have gotten worse, not better. Local governments should be given the tools they need to aid in the disaster relief. For more information on this, click here.

6. Allow Sand Berm Dredging: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently prevented the state of Louisiana from dredging to build protective sand berms. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser immediately sent a letter to President Obama requesting that the work continue. He said, “Once again, our government resource agencies, which are intended to protect us, are now leaving us vulnerable to the destruction of our coastline and marshes by the impending oil. Furthermore, with the threat of hurricanes or tropical storms, we are being put at an increased risk for devastation to our area from the intrusion of oil.” For more information on this, click here.

7. Waive or Suspend EPA Regulations: Because more water than oil is collected in skimming operations (85% to 90% is water according to Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen), operators need to discharge the filtered water back into the Gulf so they can continue to collect oil. The discharged water is vastly cleaner than when it was skimmed, but not sufficiently pure according to normal EPA regulations. If the water has to be kept in the vessel and taken back to shore for purification, it vastly multiples the resources and time needed, requiring cleanup ships to make extra round trips, transporting seven times as much water as the oil they collect. We already have insufficient cleanup ships (as the Coast Guard officially determined); they need to be cleaning up oil, not transporting water. For more information, click here.

8. Temporarily Loosen Coast Guard Inspections: In early June, sixteen barges that were vacuuming oil out of the Gulf were ordered to halt work. The Coast Guard had the clean-up vessels sit idle as they were inspected for fire extinguishers and life vests. Maritime safety is clearly a priority, but speed is of the essence in the Gulf waters. The U.S. Coast Guard should either temporarily loosen its inspection procedures or implement a process that allows inspections to occur as the ships operate. For more information, click here.

9. Stop Coast Guard Budget Cuts: Now is not the time to be cutting Coast Guard capabilities, but that is exactly what President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress are doing. Rather than rebuilding and modernizing the Coast Guard as is necessary, they are cutting back assets needed to respond to catastrophic disasters. In particular, the National Strike Force, specifically organized to respond to oil spills and other hazardous materials disasters, is being cut. Overall, President Obama has told the Coast Guard to shed nearly 1,000 personnel, five cutters, and several helicopters and aircraft. Congress and the Administration should double the U.S. Coast Guard’s active and reserve end strength over the next decade and significantly accelerate Coast Guard modernization, but for the time being, they should halt all budgetary cuts. For more information, click here.

10. Halt Climate Change Legislation: President Obama has placed his focus to the oil spill on oil demand rather than oil in our water. Regardless of political views, now is not the time to be taking advantage of this crisis to further an unrelated piece of legislation that will kill jobs and, in the President’s own words, cause energy prices to “skyrocket.” Less than 5% of our nation’s electricity needs are met by petroleum. Pushing solar and wind alternatives is in no way related to the disaster in the Gulf. It’s time for President Obama to focus on the direct actions he can take in the Gulf rather than the indirect harm he can cause in Congress. As Heritage expert David Kreutzer opines: “Fix the leak first, and then we’ll talk.” A crisis should not be a terrible thing to waste, as Rahm Emanuel said, but a problem to be solved. For more information, click here.

Related Content

Gulf Oil Gusher: Danger of Tsunamis From Methane?
DK Matai, The Huffington Post, 06.21.2010

Rule of Law: Out the Window
John Stossel, Fox Business, 06.16.2010

BP’s ‘Nightmare’ Well: Internal Documents Uncover Negligence
Brandon Keim, Wired Science, 06.15.2010

Rep. Paul: Free Market Would Have Kept BP Responsible
D. Gaking, Lysander Spooner Institute, 06.15.2010

A Crisis of Competence in the Gulf
Conn Carroll, Morning Bell, The Heritage Foundation, 05.26.2010

Lindsey Williams On The BP Oil Catastrophe
Jeff Rense, Jeff Rense Show, 05.11.2010

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