06/18/2010 06:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The $20 Billion Shakedown

Washington, D.C. -- We are living in a "through the looking glass" world. The global markets (which free-market reactionaries like Congressman Joe Barton allegedly believe in) put the cost to BP of the Deepwater Horizon disaster blunder at $80 billion -- that's how much the company's market cap has declined. Yesterday, to speed up the process of getting those damaged by BP made partly whole, President Obama successfully persuaded the company to set aside $20 billion in an escrow fund -- one quarter of what the supposedly "infallible" markets think the company should be setting aside. To reassure everyone that it would have the cash to meet its obligations, BP also agreed to cancel its dividend. The result? BP's stock went up. (BP CEO Tony Hayward's testimony to Congress yesterday, most of which featured the response most favored by criminal defense lawyers everywhere -- "I don't recall" -- failed to have a similar positive effect on the markets.)

So how did the Republican leadership in Congress react? Well, Congressman Joe Barton expressed his shock and horror, actually apologizing to the company for "a tragedy of the first proportion." No, he wasn't talking about the spill but about the escrow fund. Barton then went on to call the fund "a $20 billion shakedown."

The Republican leadership also blasted the president for taking advantage of the Deepwater Horizon disaster to try to accelerate America's inevitable shift from oil to cleaner, more sustainable, and homegrown forms of transportation fuel -- which is also the only real way to avoid future disasters like this one.

In my view, the final part of Obama's speech -- laying out the need to prevent future disasters, whether domestic or overseas -- was the weakest. He did nothing, for example, to link the spill in the Gulf to the reality that the same oil companies that spill in American waters do far, far worse elsewhere. The oil spills in the Niger Delta, for example, are the equivalent to an Exxon Valdez every year for the past fifty years! Nor did the president point out that other oil executives testifying before Congress this week, while blasting BP for drilling the Deepwater Horizon well with unacceptable carelessness,  also admitted that their own oil-spill response plans are as fraudulent as BP's was.

President Obama's administration has been better at acting on a clean-energy economy than on articulating a clear, simple, forceful vision for one. As further evidence of this odd pattern, the Army Corps of Engineers yesterday took the second big Obama administration action to ensure that coal mines follow the Clean Water Act when it canceled an outrageous and long-abused process by which states could allow mining companies to dump coal-mining waste into rivers and streams without an individual permit.

When Obama ran for president, he was pegged by some as "a great orator and politician, but an untested executive." Environmentally, though, it seems like the opposite has been the case. In reality, we need both. Can the visionary orator get his voice back without the executive losing his steadiness on the wheel?