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Josh Sternberg

Josh Sternberg

Posted: May 27, 2010 01:10 PM

Should Government Be Responsible For Corporate Disasters?

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There has always been, and will always be, natural disasters. And since the moment our long-dead ancestors stood upright there have been, and will always be, man-made disasters. For millions of years volcanoes erupted, earthquakes shattered, rivers flooded and only those unfortunate souls who stood at the base of the volcano, the crack of a fault line, or the banks of a river were affected by Mother Earth's indigestion.

But now we live in a technological era, where we can watch devastation and suffering from thousands of miles away in the comfort of our own home. Mix that up-to-the-second technology with the fundamental American right to criticize corporations, as well as our elected officials, and it's no surprise we're hearing such vitriolic missives about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A month into the oil spill, the blame game has begun and while there are plenty of parties at fault, the broader message of how the government's response is slow doesn't quite make sense. Indeed, the New York Times is debating: Is this Obama's spill now? And it really boils down to a matter of opinion: Do you believe the company who owns the rig is responsible for clean up or do you believe the government is responsible for the clean up?

To compound that message, we're hearing, "This is President Obama's Katrina." Indeed, as Manny Ortiz, senior lobbyist at Washington, D.C agency Quin, Gillespie & Associates told PRNewser, "They (Republicans) want to create the notion that this has been mishandled."

While there are some parallels between Katrina and the BP oil spill, they are superficial.

For example, both are in the same location: Gulf of Mexico. And everything from the destruction caused by both to the aid they require - economic, recovery and rebuilding - is something most can't quite fathom. Katrina was a hurricane that swept in and did damage because of shoddy engineering, and the BP oil spill is discharging thousands of barrels a day into the water because of, well, shoddy engineering. But that's about it. Oh, and apparently the government's response to both was way too slow. Which begs the question, why does the government need to respond to a company's problem?

There are some who are saying that the Obama administration's lack of response (and/or help) is similar to that of President Bush's slow response to Katrina. But looking closer at these sentiments, it's hard not to see the political football bouncing in numerous directions:

The BP oil spill was because of failure of a company (actually, several companies) in a poorly regulated industry.

People are calling for the government to step in, but the government doesn't have the resources to fix it. You can't complain about lack of government resources when you don't pay your taxes (47% of U.S households don't pay income tax), which finance those necessary resources - both in the labor and in parts. And you certainly can't complain about lack of government resources when you have a political ideology that believes the government that governs least, governs best.

Paul Boudreaux, an environmental law professor at Stetson University's College of Law, stated in the St. Petersburg Times: "Certainly the government could take over" the oil cleanup, he said. "But I'm not sure if the Coast Guard would have any more resources to deal with this than BP does."

So the government can't help, and BP can't seem to figure it out. Is there an alternative way to fix the problem? The answer may lie within BP's competitors. If all the other major oil companies pooled their resources - both financially and technologically - there must be a solution.

It was reported that rival oil companies are chipping in, but can they do more? This is your chance, ExxonMobil, to do some good. You listening, Shell? Your companies can provide the means to plug this leak and do something your industry hasn't been able to do in a long, long time: look good.

The adage, "With every crisis there's opportunity" holds true in this situation. The oil industry has the ability to change "best practices" and work with the government to create a non-profit non-partisan entity to specifically develop and seek out technologies dealing with spills and other industry-related disasters, which can further become the lead organization on any spill.

A buy in from each of the major corporations would allow this oversight organization the ability to get going and maintain itself. This body could regulate an industry that is severely under-regulated and create its own enforcement arm. Essentially, this could be an industry watchdog that has financial support from oil companies, as well regulatory and compliance input from government.

This demonstrates not only forward thinking, but a system of measures in place that should another disaster happen (and it will), each entity (company, government, oversight organization) can work together to a) respond and b) solve the myriad problems that occur.

While there are many issues at play, placing blame on this administration by comparing its response to that of the previous administration's response to Katrina is misguided and to put it simply, not fair. The actual oil spill and clean up is not a government issue, but the regulation and oversight, as well as the endemic issue of being addicted to oil is.

Add this to the list of reform this administration should tackle. We're seeing a government work for its people, and as history has shown, when our government operates for the people and not for industry, positive change happens.