Sex & Drugs & the Spill
Published: May 9, 2010
“Obama’s Katrina”: that was the line from some pundits and news sources, as they tried to blame the current administration for the gulf oil spill. It was nonsense, of course. An Associated Press review of the Obama administration’s actions and statements as the disaster unfolded found “little resemblance” to the shambolic response to Katrina — and there has been nothing like those awful days when everyone in the world except the Bush inner circle seemed aware of the human catastrophe in New Orleans.
Yet there is a common thread running through Katrina and the gulf spill — namely, the collapse in government competence and effectiveness that took place during the Bush years.
The full story of the Deepwater Horizon blowout is still emerging. But it’s already obvious both that BP failed to take adequate precautions, and that federal regulators made no effort to ensure that such precautions were taken.
For years, the Minerals Management Service, the arm of the Interior Department that oversees drilling in the gulf, minimized the environmental risks of drilling. It failed to require a backup shutdown system that is standard in much of the rest of the world, even though its own staff declared such a system necessary. It exempted many offshore drillers from the requirement that they file plans to deal with major oil spills. And it specifically allowed BP to drill Deepwater Horizon without a detailed environmental analysis.
Surely, however, none of this — except, possibly, that last exemption, granted early in the Obama administration — surprises anyone who followed the history of the Interior Department during the Bush years.
For the Bush administration was, to a large degree, run by and for the extractive industries — and I’m not just talking about Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Crucially, management of Interior was turned over to lobbyists, most notably J. Steven Griles, a coal-industry lobbyist who became deputy secretary and effectively ran the department. (In 2007 Mr. Griles pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his ties to Jack Abramoff.)
Given this history, it’s not surprising that the Minerals Management Service became subservient to the oil industry — although what actually happened is almost too lurid to believe. According to reports by Interior’s inspector general, abuses at the agency went beyond undue influence: there was “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” — cocaine, sexual relationships with industry representatives, and more. Protecting the environment was presumably the last thing on these government employees’ minds.
Now, President Obama isn’t completely innocent of blame in the current spill. As I said, BP received an environmental waiver for Deepwater Horizon after Mr. Obama took office. It’s true that he’d only been in the White House for two and half months, and the Senate wouldn’t confirm the new head of the Minerals Management Service until four months later. But the fact that the administration hadn’t yet had time to put its stamp on the agency should have led to extra caution about giving the go-ahead to projects with possible environmental risks.
And it’s worth noting that environmentalists were bitterly disappointed when Mr. Obama chose Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior. They feared that he would be too friendly to mineral and agricultural interests, that his appointment meant that there wouldn’t be a sharp break with Bush-era policies — and in this one instance at least, they seem to have been right.
In any case, now is the time to make that break — and I don’t just mean by cleaning house at the Minerals Management Service. What really needs to change is our whole attitude toward government. For the troubles at Interior weren’t unique: they were part of a broader pattern that includes the failure of banking regulation and the transformation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a much-admired organization during the Clinton years, into a cruel joke. And the common theme in all these stories is the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology.
Mr. Obama understands this: he gave an especially eloquent defense of government at the University of Michigan’s commencement, declaring among other things that “government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them.”
Yet antigovernment ideology remains all too prevalent, despite the havoc it has wrought. In fact, it has been making a comeback with the rise of the Tea Party movement. If there’s any silver lining to the disaster in the gulf, it is that it may serve as a wake-up call, a reminder that we need politicians who believe in good government, because there are some jobs only the government can do.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 10, 2010, on page A23 of the New York edition.