Photo credit: US Navy
On May 22, 2010, just a few weeks after BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig had exploded in the Gulf and unleashed the biggest environmental catastrophe in American history, President Obama established a National Oil Spill Commission to investigate the event. Yesterday, that commission issued a report on the efficacy and candor of the disaster response effort from the very administration that created it -- and it's not flattering. The report asserts that the Obama administration downplayed damning spill estimates and at times acted incompetently. The CS Monitor sums it up pretty well:
The Obama administration lagged in its initial response to the BP oil spill, played down spill projections, ultimately overreacted, and injected politics into the spill response, according to a report by President Obama's own oil spill commission.So what were the administration's cardinal sins during the response? The worst blunders seem to have sprouted from an eagerness to go along with BP, either for perceived strategic reasons or due to blind optimism. Either way, the administration did consistently endorse BP's spill estimates -- which started at 1,000 barrels a day, jumped to 5,000 barrels a day, lingered there for quite some time, before eventually rising to the 60,000 barrel estimate we have today. Most of that uncertainty was not, however, rooted in a desire to deceive the public -- an inability to get good data was the larger culprit, as Time's Jeffrey Kluger points out.
But downplaying the spill estimate wasn't the only misstep from the administration. Here's the CSM again:
In a section called "The Boom Wars," the report criticizes a subsequent overreaction by the administration, saying its tripling of resources only muddied the response and pitted parishes and coastal counties against one another. Political considerations also became evident as the White House took firmer control of the disaster, it said, with one edict going out to "keep the parishes happy."Here we have bureaucratic floundering in the face of a rapidly escalating disaster -- who can blame an administration for using excess resources in the face of the greatest environmental disaster in history? Or attempting to keep the politically divided parishes of Louisiana as happy as possible to enable better cooperation? Those are both easy gambits to make given the circumstances.
The real story of the spill response that the report outlines is one of undue optimism, repeated underestimation, a too-strong willingness to comply with BP's demands and statements, and, finally, sloppy desperation. There were certainly distinct failings by the Obama administration over the course of the spill response -- but the White House did eventually get many things right as well, and this investigation itself is evidence that it is willing to examine and learn from its mistakes. As Kluger concludes, "The oil spill was nowhere near "Obama's Katrina" as many claimed it would be. But nor was it the Administration's finest hour. The President likes to talk about teachable moment; let's hope this was one of them--and that the White House itself learned a few things too."