Who's to Blame for the Gulf Oil Spill?

The Bush Administration's petro-bias soiled the Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with regulating offshore drilling, but President Obama's lack of oversight hasn't helped

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Sean Gardner / Reuters

A dead Northern Gannet covered in oil lies along Grand Isle Beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

My favorite metaphor, among the myriad gushing forth from the Great Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, is the "junk shot." The notion that the propulsion of man-made garbage — chunks of metal, knotted ropes, golf balls (!) and so forth — into the mess of busted pipes might stanch the flow of liquid-carbon garbage had a certain ring to it. Let the junk bury the junk. It seemed so perfectly polluted, but then everything about the disaster reeked of garbage. British Petroleum, the perpetrator of the mess, had greened its logo in recent years, noisily announced its commitment to environmentalism and styled itself as Beyond Petroleum, which was a prime example of postmodern, focus-grouped fecal marketing. Even the chemical that BP sprayed to disperse the spill, a product hilariously called Corexit, was toxic when used in such large quantities, according to the government. Reality had taken its revenge: BP now stood for Biggest Polluter. Indeed, the uncontrolled corruption of the spill — the failure of government, business and technology to manage an essential, if archaic, resource — beggared all human pretense. Nature was mocking the conservative faith in untrammeled market freedom and the liberal faith that market excesses can be regulated.

The Republican Party seemed an especially fat target for Mother Earth's satiric vengeance. It was, after all, the party that had branded itself with the slogan "Drill, baby, drill" during the 2008 presidential campaign, a party that busily denied the mass of scientific evidence about global carbon pollution. Rush Limbaugh first speculated that the spill might have been the work of environmental terrorists but then settled on this remarkable formulation: "The ocean will take care of this on its own." The oil was "natural. It's as natural as the ocean water is." Thus Rush upended several millenniums of "oil and water" adages. Less foolish but no less feckless was Rand Paul — the Tea Party's Kentucky tribune and hero to high school libertarians everywhere — who dismissed the disaster with a blithe "Accidents happen." This echoed Donald Rumsfeld's famous line after the anarchic looting broke out in Baghdad: "Stuff happens." But this sort of stuff is more likely to happen when government refuses to plan and regulate for worst-case scenarios.

The more predictable Republican response to an event so inconvenient to the party's ideology was to blame Barack Obama. Sarah Palin accused Obama of being in bed with Big Oil — an accusation that, like oil itself, was rich and crude, given her own and her party's close ties to the petroleum industry. Sean Hannity called the spill "Obama's Katrina," but it was actually George W. Bush's second Katrina. Vice President Dick Cheney, fresh from his days at Halliburton, had presided over the weakening of drilling regulations, including the exclusion of remote-shut-off switches (commonly used in the North Sea oil fields), which might have prevented the disaster. The Bush Administration's petro-bias and antigovernment sensibility soiled the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency charged with regulating offshore drilling.

Indeed, the MMS soon emerged as a caricature of bureaucratic lassitude and corruption. A 2008 report found that the agency's regulators were taking gifts from, and having sex with the employees of, the companies they were supposed to be monitoring. Another report, about MMS activities from 2005 to 2007, will show, among many other things, that MMS staffers allowed oil companies to fill out their own inspection reports in pencil, which were then committed to ink by stenographic MMS regulators. Other studies found that the MMS was remarkably, perhaps criminally, lax in collecting the royalties due the government for the right to extract oil from public lands, nor was it fulfilling its rig-inspection responsibilities. The encyclopedic catalog of the agency's sleaziness boggles the mind.

There is, however, a germ of truth to both Palin's and Hannity's charges. Obama is not blameless. A month before the spill, he insinuated himself into the "Drill, baby, drill" camp by agreeing to a deal, first proposed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, in which offshore drilling and nuclear power would be added to legislation taxing carbon fuels and promoting alternative energy. There was a certain logic to that. All three forms of energy — fossil, nuclear and alternative — are necessary as the transition to a greener, more efficient economy takes place. But drilling can be defended only if it is closely managed and regulated, and Obama's Interior Department allowed the MMS to marinate in its own stink for 15 months without overhauling it before disaster struck. It was another bit of evidence that Obama, the candidate of change, had overlooked the most important, if least dramatic, change needed after the Bush Administration's wall-to-wall neglect — a renewed commitment to actual governance after an era when the slick and grease of marketing slogans and political posturing had polluted our national life.