All hands on deck!
Barack Obama calls it "a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster". The explosion on a BP drilling platform on April 20 has led to an outpouring of oil from the sea floor which threatens not only wildlife, but also the important fishing and tourism industries, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
Visiting Louisiana on Sunday, Obama said that "the federal government has launched and coordinated an all-hands-on-deck, relentless response to this crisis from day one". He talked about search and rescue operations, the evacuation of 115 people, and an undersea mission to identify the source of the leaks. A command center was set up. Two cabinet officials and three top environmental officials were sent immediately to check things out as 70 ships moved into place.
The ghost of Katrina
Obama's critics were, however, unhappy with this, even going so far as to compare the current president's efforts to the sluggish response of George W. Bush to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Why? Well, aside from the coincidence of geography, it also happened that a few days had in fact gone by before the government had done very much.
This was because BP had told the government not to worry, that it would be able to get things under control. Only days later, when government scientists measured the size of the oil spill, did it become clear that much greater resources needed to be mobilized. The question behind all this is: Should government trust industry? The answer that's emerging is: No.
"Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill," Obama said. There's no question who's getting the blame here. The White House website refers to the event consistently as "the BP oil spill".
In 2000, in an attempt to shift its focus to renewable energies, BP adopted the slogan "Beyond Petroleum", which it still uses today. In 2002, BP was the first major oil company to recognize the effects of climate change; and indeed, the company and its subsidiaries have been major players in the areas of hydrogen fuel, wind power and especially solar energy. They haven't moved beyond petroleum, though — not by a long shot.
Oil extraction is a risky thing. In 2005, a BP refinery in Texas exploded, killing 15 people. The federal government later fined BP $87 million for not correcting the safety hazard that had led to the explosion. Then, in 2006, more than one million liters of oil spilled out of a corroded pipe operated by BP on Alaska's North Slope.
During the 2008 election campaign, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin criticized Barack Obama's hesitance at the time to allow more oil drilling off American coasts. Crowds shouted her slogans "Drill, baby, drill!" and "Drill here, drill now!" in a wish to be less dependent on oil from the Middle East.
Palin's critics might have expected her to avoid commenting on the current oil spill. Until last September, her husband worked for BP on Alaska's North Slope, and one might have expected a conflict of interest. But in a very well-written and even-handed letter on her Facebook page on Friday, Palin described the accident in the Gulf of Mexico as "tragic".
"I repeat the slogan 'Drill here, drill now' not out of naiveté or disregard for the tragic consequences of oil spills — my family and my state and I know firsthand those consequences. How could I still believe in drilling America's domestic supply of energy after having seen the devastation of the Exxon Valdez spill? I continue to believe in it because increased domestic oil production will make us a more secure, prosperous, and peaceful nation."
Like it or not, we still depend on oil to an overwhelming extent. BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward has said: "We are taking full responsibility for the spill and we will clean it up." But I'd like to hear a little more from him: you know, words like "Sorry" and — however unlikely — "It won't happen again".