When the nation is threatened, it turns to its president. And with the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico now in its 38th day, President Obama needs to lead. Today's press conference offers him that opportunity.
Obama has appeared almost scarily unengaged from what the public increasingly recognizes is a genuine national emergency. When he goes before the press corps and the nation this afternoon, he faces a fateful choice: Will he respond with another of his now-familiar outbursts of anger with no follow-through? Or will he take charge of the national response and announce a clear plan of action?
When it comes to stopping the leak itself, which is obviously everyone's top priority, there's not necessarily anything Obama can do that BP isn't doing already. But that doesn't mean there aren't other compelling steps he could announce that would improve the government's response to the disaster and move him from its sidelines to its forefront.
Based on interviews with a slew of experts, here are some suggestions:
- Obama should make it clear that BP is no longer the final decision maker -- about anything. He should also establish that nobody in government is taking anything BP says on face value anymore. The company's track record speaks for itself. And its motives, especially when it comes to assessing the effects of the blowout, are inherently suspect. Given the liability it faces, one of BP's key objectives at this point is inevitably to limit how much of the damage the public or the authorities are actually able to see.
- Obama should demand -- and promise -- complete transparency, both from BP and his own administration. It's not enough to describe what assets are in place. BP and the federal agencies involved in the response need to be much more upfront about what they are doing -- and, perhaps even more importantly, about the leak's effects.
- That must include an honest assessment of how much oil has actually flowed into the Gulf, how much continues to gush out, where it's going, and what it's doing to the ocean, not just the shoreline. Thus far, official estimates of the oil flow have been embarrassingly unrealistic. BP has been clamping down on information about the shoreline cleanup. And an even bigger failing has been the government's continued blindness to the devastating effects the oil is having under the surface. Exhaustive testing needs to start immediately, and be made public.
- Obama should announce that he is revisiting the use of dispersants. It's not just that the one BP continues to use despite an EPA stop-order is toxic. It's that what dispersants do, at heart, is spread the oil out over a larger volume of water. With a spill this big, that might actually be exactly the wrong approach.
- In fact, Obama should be charging BP and his own scientists and agencies to come up with better ways to concentrate the oil in one place and remove it before it further damages the Gulf or its shorelines.
Finally, although it may be too late, Obama should still try to seize the moment to rally public support against the policies that contributed to this crisis.
- As environmentalists have been saying for weeks, the spill is a teachable moment that Obama could use to galvanize the nation behind significant energy and climate-change legislation that would aggressively wean the nation off fossil fuels.
- Similarly, Obama missed an opportunity to call attention to the near-complete regulatory failure that led up to the disaster, as a way of reminding the nation of the need for a government that actively protects the interests of its people against those who would otherwise pursue profit without limits. He is already expected to call for tougher safety requirements and more rigorous inspections on off-shore drilling operations as well as an extended moratorium on new drilling and the cancellation of some offshore leases. He should go further and call for a full-scale review and revival of government regulation across the board -- declaring a definitive end to eight years of irresponsibility by the George W. Bush crew, and a year and a half of lethargy by his own team.
But little of this is likely to happen. Instead, the Gulf oil spill risks turning into an object lesson in ineffective leadership and the corporate capture of government -- precisely the opposite of the lessons we expected Obama to teach the nation.
So far, certainly, there's been nothing about Obama's response to this disaster that inspires hope; while way too much of it breeds cynicism.
Granted, none of the experts interviewed by the Huffington Post were able to come up with satisfactory solutions to the basic problem that don't involve time machines.
When it comes to job one -- stopping more oil from gushing out -- even the most can-do among engineers aren't optimistic, should "Top Kill" fail. "Trying to plug this oil at 5,000 feet is a bit pot luck," said John Large, a British consulting engineer who helped recover the Kursk, a Russian nuclear submarine that sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in 2000. "I would say generally, in engineering terms, this is a real mind-blower."
BP "failed to see what could go wrong," he told HuffPost, and as a result, engineers are relegated to cooking up ad hoc solutions, each of which carries with it the distinct chance it will make things worse rather than better.
"The more debris, the more bits of kit and fouled schemes that you put down there, the more difficult it is for the next operation to have a clear run," he said. "And of course you can worsen the damage."
And while Sam Stein reports for the Huffington Post that Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is among those calling for Obama to send in the military if the "Top Kill" fails, it's unclear what even they could do about it. (Blowing the damn thing up has been ruled out as an option.)
Meanwhile, one of BP's initial decisions -- to use dispersants to break up the oil -- is increasingly being questioned. BP has applied an unprecedented 815,000 gallons of dispersant to the spill so far, and more every day.
But marine scientists point out that dispersants don't actually reduce the amount of oil entering the environment, they just change where the oil goes. And while dispersants make complete sense when trying to break up a small slick headed for a fragile shoreline, they may not when dealing with a massive deep-sea spill.
The National Research Council's canonical guide to Oil Spill Dispersants: Efficacy and Effects explains:
Dispersant application... represents a conscious decision to increase the hydrocarbon load (resulting from a spill) on one component of the ecosystem (e.g., the water column) while reducing the load on another (e.g., coastal wetland). Decisions to use dispersants, therefore, involve trade-offs between decreasing the risk to water surface and shoreline habitats while increasing the potential risk to organisms in the water column and on the seafloor.
Or, as Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with the ocean conservation group Oceana, puts it: "Whether or not dispersants are a good idea depends on whether you're a seabird or a fish."
They're also a good idea, of course, if you're trying to keep as much of the oil as possible out of sight.
BP "clearly want to limit the amount of oil coming to shore; that's what people see," Rick Steiner, a veteran marine conservation consultant told McClatchy Newspapers. "If they can limit the amount of oil in evidence, they can limit the public outrage and likely pay less financial damages down the road."
Some scientists think dispersing this spill could be exactly the wrong approach. Eric Adams, an environmental engineer at MIT, is an expert both in deep-sea leaks and dispersants. After stemming the leak, the second priority is removing as much of the oil as possible from the water, he told HuffPost. And spreading it around only makes that harder.
Adams thinks responders should explore "if you could put a shroud around the plume, and guide the plume up to the water surface." Then, instead of making a thin slick, the oil "would stay within the relatively small diameter of this curtain, and it would allow you to collect it."
Adams's thinking dovetails with statements by John Hofmeister, a former CEO of Shell Oil, who told MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan on Tuesday that authorities should bring in supertankers to suck in seawater and oil .
Throughout the last five weeks, the lack of information has been driving scientists crazy.
"We potentially have huge consequences going on in the water column," said Carys Louise Mitchelmore, an associate professor in environmental chemistry and toxicology with the University of Maryland.
"I was just shocked at how limited and poor quality the BP data set was," she told HuffPost. "They've got to assess the harm that's going on in the water column," she said. "We don't know if you've got snowing dead organisms out there right now."
And while those organisms may not be as "charismatic" as the larger animals, Mitchelmore said, if they die then the larger animals will starve to death.
Echoing the cry of other researchers, Savitz said that more transparency is imperative. If nothing else, she said, "making as much information public as possible would help us draw on the cumulative expertise of our country and beyond."