Obama's Oil Spill Speech: Will The Technocrat Take Action?

06/16/2010 02:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama has the soul of a technocrat.

The man in charge of the most powerful cubicle in the world may have sprinkled last night's
speech on the BP oil spill with words of war ("siege," "battle plan"), but they felt like asides to the pundits. It was a speech designed to stir up a boring sense of competent management, not outrage and vigor.

"Just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation's best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge -- a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation's Secretary of Energy," he said, early in the speech. "Scientists at our national labs and experts from academia and other oil companies have also provided ideas and advice."

Ever since he stepped into office, Barack Obama has earnestly attempted to reaffirm the idea of an accountable establishment, comfortable with bland, almost dour expertise instead of the
pronouncements of Wall Street and oil executives and anti-government politicians, He has been averse to populism and has tried to fix a broken system to use government power to nudge, not whip, the corporate class -- lawyers, bankers, executives, doctors, lobbyists -- back into line.

Last night was no exception.

Yet experts often seem like doctors who arrive at crime scenes just to sign death certificates because the patient has already died.

Increasingly, industries have more than just a monopoly on the know-how and expertise to fix the disasters they caused -- they also safeguard the data, the lifeblood of independent experts, until it's too late. And, once again, last night was no exception, as the speech was preceded by a report that scientists are doubling their estimate of the daily spill rate.

It's a disorienting cycle, where expert warning does not seem to result in expert action. First, it was the financial crash, where a shadow banking system expanded and
exploded, and only now, as financial reform gets close, does it seem at least some derivatives will finally be dragged out into the open.

Then, there was the tragic disaster at the Massey coal mine in West Virginia, where over twenty miners died and Massey CEO Don Blankenship, a longtime foe of regulation, was able to point out that the Mining Safety and Health Agency had basically worked with him hand-in-glove under the guise of "compliance assistance."

And then, there's the spill. Last week, Ira Leifer, a university research scientist and member of the Flow Rate Technical Group, the government-appointed body charged with picking through BP data and figuring out the size of the spill, made waves when he said that the gusher was much larger than previously thought. But he also made clear that, since BP had full control of real-time data, valuable information was being lost that could not only be used to pin down
cost and blame, but document what exactly was going wrong so that the same thing wouldn't happen next time.

"The scientists have not been able to come in and actually make the measurements so that we can learn from what happened, so that when there is another accident somewhere on the planet, the best science and technology can protect the ecosystem," he told the radio show Democracy Now. "We would be talking about a small, but still horrible, spill rather than the very large one that we're currently faced, where we don't seem to have any good idea as to really how to stop it."

(This past weekend, BP added some more sensors, at the request of the scientists. But there was nearly nothing before the spill.)

In his speech, Obama talked about the work of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and their decision to appointed Michael Bromwich as the new head of the Minerals Management Service, the agency which was famously cozy with industry and nominally responsible
for watching over drilling.

"His charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry's watchdog -- not its partner."

These words have a familiar, depressing ring. In March 2009, Salazar told Rolling Stone something similar in reference to previous problems at the beleaguered agency: "We have the inspector general involved with us in a preventive mode so that the department doesn't commit the same mistakes of the past."

Obama meets with BP executives today, and they will make a show of cooperation and they will fight over liability, and other oil companies will continue to be careful about deepwater drilling,
nodding at the recommendations of scientist and engineers. There may be some changes as yesterday's problem is fixed, but it won't fix the looming sense that the data -- the boring numbers needed to prevent the looming disasters of the future -- will still be kept out of reach.