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Eco Etiquette: Is The Gulf Oil Disaster Obama's Katrina?

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I'm a South Park conservative who hates the government and wants to be left alone. The Republicans are despicable, the Democrats are even worse. But I have a question: Are you satisfied with the federal response to the Gulf oil spill? It seems to me that if Bush had done things exactly the same way, he would have been eviscerated, like he was for Katrina.

-Bryant

I find it interesting that on the one hand, you're surprised at apparent federal inaction regarding the BP oil disaster, but on the other, claim to be wary of government involvement in general. Much of the reason we're even in this whole fiasco to begin with has do with the big O -- or lack of it, for that matter. I'm talking, of course, about oversight.

The Wall Street meltdown. The Massey coal mine catastrophe. The now 200,000 gallons of oil spewing daily from the Deepwater Horizon well site in the Gulf of Mexico. These are all instances where corporate interests have trumped the protective power of the federal government, to the detriment of American lives and our environment.

It seems that the United States government should be charged with safeguarding our precious coastline, but this is not the reality: Oil exploration infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico -- including cleaning up the mess when that infrastructure fails -- is the responsibility of the companies who own and operate it (in this case, BP, Transocean, and yup, Halliburton).

Of course, under federal law, the Obama administration has the power to completely federalize the oil spill cleanup if it decides that BP -- which has claimed responsibility for the incident -- isn't up to the job. So why hasn't the president done this?

Well, the unfortunate truth is that the federal government doesn't know how to clean up this mess any more than BP does. (To wit: The Environmental Protection Agency website's "Submit a Technology Solution" page, where you can put your own two cents in as to how to mop up the spill.) The Coast Guard was on site in the Gulf to assist from the get-go; what would a bigger government response have looked like? More unproven and potentially toxic dispersants? A larger dome?

And that's the saddest part: Because of our desperate need for oil and other fossil fuels, we've allowed corporations to develop ultra sophisticated technologies to plumb the depths of the ocean for oil, but not required them to construct solutions to deal with a disaster scenario when those technologies fail. (Not surprising, considering that BP spent $16 million lobbying Congress last year alone.) This, despite repeated evidence -- the Ixtoc 1 in 1979, the Exxon Valdez in 1989 -- that oil catastrophes can and will happen. (Kind of like building a nuclear power plant without ever considering the possibility of a meltdown.)

Appropriately, the Obama administration is now taking steps to prevent another Deepwater Horizon, putting a freeze on new offshore drilling permits and establishing a presidential commission to investigate the spill. But these actions will do nothing to stem the tide of thick crude leaving untold thousands of dead marine creatures in its wake. Nor will it bring back the jobs of hundreds of now-unemployed Gulf fisherman, nor the lives of the 11 workers killed in the explosion.

But let's be clear: Much as I believe the federal government should do everything in its power to ensure that oil companies don't put profits before prudence -- including enforcing stricter safety regulations and increasing the cap on liability for companies involved in oil spills -- the BP oil disaster is not Obama's Katrina.

Unlike the Deepwater Horizon, which was a privately owned oil rig (Transocean) leased by a privately owned company (BP), the levee system that was supposed to be protecting New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina was the responsibility of the federal government, overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.

For years, the Corps ignored warnings that the levees would not hold in the event of a catastrophic hurricane. Whether or not the failure to address those weaknesses can be ascribed to Bush entirely is debatable (there were funding issues that could be blamed on Congress, local government budgets, etc.), but one thing is clear: To head up the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- which, in 2001, designated a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the likeliest catastrophic disasters facing this country -- Bush chose Michael Brown, a former college buddy with no prior experience in disaster management. The man was a former commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association, for God's sake.

Because of that decision, thousands of people were left stranded when FEMA failed to effectively coordinate evacuation and rescue efforts; hundreds more needlessly died.

If there is one connection we can make between the two events, let it be that as Hurricane Katrina directed public attention toward the issue of climate change, so should the BP oil spill galvanize political will toward freeing ourselves from dirty oil once and for all. We can't afford another disaster, be it natural or man-made.

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