Though some readers view me as less than a fan of President Barack Obama, in this case, I rise to his defense, and protest the rising volume of comparisons of this oil spill in the Gulf with the devastation brought to the region five years ago by Hurricane Katrina. I view only two significant similarities. The collapse of dams and levies in New Orleans were due to outdated engineering, bad zoning and manmade disaster protection systems long overdue for overhaul. And though the comparison of geography is obvious, it is also an oversimplification. Within days of the Deepwater Horizon capsizing and sinking at sea, the White House mobilized the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and National Guard.
White House is not the Wizard of Oz
The White House should be able to mobilize the National Guard, Coast Guard and move resources—such as the thousands of gallons of bottled water that the Bush Administration somehow could not manage to deliver into New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That and related criticism regarding lack of coordination, poor decision-making and few lessons learned from 9/11 falls fairly on the shoulders of the Bush White House.
However the White House should not be the global expert on every industry. There are no firemen in the White House. If that building caught fire again, the Washington, D.C. Fire Department would respond. The fact that the building has nearly burned to the ground twice is proof of that.
We sometimes view our president and White House through a media prism, presenting an all-knowing, all-seeing Wizard of Oz, able to supply a brain, heart, courage and whatever else is necessary—such as magic submarines and divers who can drop miles into the bottom of the ocean and cap an oil well overnight. Even in countries where the oil industry has been nationalized those solutions do not yet exist.
Oil industry is global and the United States is a minor player
The Horizon platform was drilling 50 miles off shore, in international waters, more than 5,000 feet below sea level. U.S. government jurisdiction is almost as limited here as it might be with a crime committed in international waters onboard a cruise ship. Instances of murder or even food poisoning might be investigated when a ship pulls into a U.S. port, but the CIA, FBI and even the U.S. Navy have very little jurisdiction until a U.S. citizen is injured, threatened or harmed on the high seas.
Amoco is now a part of BP Oil. Shell Oil is now Royal Dutch Shell. Of the major oil companies of the world, only Exxon/Mobil, Chevron and Conoco remain U.S. based—and all of the major private oil companies combined own/control less than 20 percent of the world’s oil supply and reserves. The vast majority are controlled by various national governments or public/private consortiums like OPEC.
Capping will not stop spills
Though the Republican governors of California and Florida have since issued calls against additional off-shore drilling permits, neither state has offered to cap their existing wells, or forgo the billions in tax revenues, royalties and drilling fees that they currently enjoy. Although President Obama is withholding permits for additional off-shore drilling in Alaska and the mainland coast, he thus far smartly is not calling for an outright ban.
The vast majority of oil spills are more like smaller versions of the Exxon Valdez. Aging and decrepit tankers run ashore, sail with leaking hulls or sail under government flags in vessels that fall under no U.S. jurisdiction or control, until they enter our waters or ports. The last major off-shore well spill in America was in Sacramento, Calif., in 1969. The last spill from a tanker was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. As long as we import billions of barrels of oil per year, those spills are likely to continue.
Despite the fact that Deepwater Horizon was only in its 80th day of oil production, and there are a few thousand oil wells off U.S. shores, media reports following the spill warned of soaring oil prices. When I left for a recent trip abroad, gas prices were just north of $2.75 a gallon. On return they were down to around $2.50 in time for the heavy travel of Memorial Day weekend. While the devastation by Katrina temporarily shut down dozens of oil refineries, reserves and platforms in the Gulf, causing significant gas price spikes, this ain’t no Katrina. And isn’t it interesting to witness the natural powers of supply and demand?