July 19, 2010 | Commentary on Energy and Environment
Oil's well that ends well -- or so the White House hopes.
Almost as soon as BP announced it had succeeded (at least for now) in plugging the Deepwater Horizon gusher, President Obama called a White House press conference -- his first in nearly a year. His main message: The crisis is over; let the vacation begin!
The assembled press pretty much gave him a pass. The first question: "Did you feel the earthquake, Mr. President?" The tremor Washington had early Friday was 3.2 on the Richter Scale -- not enough to shake a martini, but the wizened Washington press corps apparently found it more newsworthy than the Gulf disaster.
Yet the real work is still ahead. By most estimates, the 86-day leak dumped 100 million to 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. Unless contained and cleaned up, that contamination will wreak far more damage to the region's economy, environment and way of life than Katrina ever did.
And the president still needs to get the federal act together. I met with state and local officials and business leaders throughout the Gulf region last week. To a man -- and woman -- they felt that the federal response to the disaster has been, itself, a disaster. John Young, head of Louisiana's Jefferson Parish -- one of the hardest-hit areas -- say the feds have been "stuck on stupid" since Day One.
And with the cap working -- and the apparent eagerness of the press to move on to the next story -- locals fear the pressure on BP and the feds to "keep after it" will ease.
Emergencies demand swift, aggressive, multi-pronged remedial action. But in the Gulf, the administration has opted for a centralized, bureaucratic response. State and local officials know what they need to do to contain the spill and clean it up. Yet time and again their efforts have been stymied.
To build rock jetties and other oil barriers -- even to sop up oil when it reaches a swamp -- state and local jurisdictions must first gain approval from multiple federal agencies. Louisiana offered proposal after proposal to block the oil slick heading for Grand Isle.
Yet federal officials sat on the plans for weeks, then rejected them -- and offered no alternatives for preventing the fouling of Barataria Bay.
Indeed, the feds often seem more interested in assuring that the locals jump through every possible regulatory hoop -- dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" along the way -- than in cleaning up the mess.
For example, sand berms off the Chandeleur Islands protect the Mississippi Delta against approaching hurricanes -- yet federal officials halted dredging to replenish the sandbars, insisting that contaminated sand be removed first. To get things going again, the state had to dispatch two National Guard helicopters to cart the sand away -- probably the most expensive sand removal on record.
It infuriates the locals. They care about what happens to their land, their water and their livelihoods, even if their "betters" in DC and New York are getting bored with the 14-week-old story.
Continued delay means disaster. Much of the Louisiana coast is marshland and estuaries; water doesn't flow through these areas, it pretty much sits. Once the oil gets there, there's no tidal action or river flow to flush it out. And these lands anchor the food chain for about one-third of America's fisheries. If they are badly contaminated, those fisheries will be lost for a generation or more.
The federal response must get better fast. Most small businesses put out of business for even a few weeks by disasters never come back. More money and more attention later won't save jobs now. But improvement will come only with focus, commitment and a sense of urgency from the very top. Does the Obama administration get it yet?
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national and homeland security at The Heri tage Foundation.
First appeared in The New York Post