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Slick politics

President Obama's response to the Gulf oil spill threatens more harm than good

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

On the night President Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidency, the candidate said his supporters would remember the June evening as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Barely two years later, the president sat soberly behind his desk in the Oval Office on a recent June evening, trying to respond to a spiraling crisis in a troubled ocean that may take years to heal.

The president on June 15 used his first Oval Office address to offer what he called "a battle plan" to fight the BP oil spill that has been gushing an estimated 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day. But the president's plan-with little power to stop a massive spill that even round-the-clock BP engineers can't manage-instead puts forth long-term policies that may do more harm than good.

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The president's first step: a moratorium on deepwater drilling. An Obama administration report claimed that seven scientists from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) had reviewed the recommendation to temporarily ban deepwater drilling in a region already suffering from a tanking seafood industry.

The scientists said that wasn't true. In a letter to lawmakers, they said they reviewed the plan before administration officials added the moratorium, and that they don't approve of the ban: "It will not measurably reduce risk further and it will have a lasting impact on the nation's economy which may be greater than that of the spill."

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, said the ban could impact some 330,000 jobs in Louisiana alone-nearly 13.4 percent of the state's work force. The state's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, pleaded with the president to reverse the ban: "The last thing we need is to enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more."

The president's second step: Set up an independent fund to handle Gulf Coast residents' claims against BP. Obama said an independent entity would ensure that BP fairly reimburses residents for lost wages and other damages. BP agreed to the request, though many legal experts said the president didn't have the authority to demand such an entity. And they say a problem remains: Such an entity could become beholden to the administration and take far longer to process claims.

The president's third step: climate change legislation that makes even some Democrats wary. In his Oval Office speech, Obama avoided controversial cap-and-trade language but hailed energy legislation that the House passed last year. That bill included a cap-and-trade program that would raise energy costs for individuals and businesses.

Though a cap-and-trade provision remains in a proposed Senate bill, Democrats may remove the program to attempt passage of an energy bill this year. Senators still could add the provision later as an amendment.

But some Democratic senators questioned linking climate change legislation with the Gulf Coast spill. "The climate bill isn't going to stop the oil leak," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the Bloomberg news service. "The first thing you have to do is stop the oil leak." Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., agreed: "That doesn't have much to do with the Gulf."

Down in the Gulf, local officials continued to express frustration with cleanup efforts, decrying poor coordination between BP workers and thousands of federal employees. Even local efforts seemed thwarted: When Alabama officials ordered protective boom from the Persian Gulf to keep oil from coming into the vulnerable Perdido Bay, Coast Guard officials took the boom and gave it to Louisiana. After a heated meeting that included Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and President Obama, the Coast Guard said it would make up the loss. By then, it was too late: Oil had breached the bay.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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