There are obvious actions to speed things up, but the government oddly resists taking them.
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As the oil spill continues and the cleanup lags, we must begin to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions. There does not seem to be much that anyone can do to stop the spill except dig a relief well, not due until August. But the cleanup is a different story. The press and Internet are full of straightforward suggestions for easy ways of improving the cleanup, but the federal government is resisting these remedies.
First, the Environmental Protection Agency can relax restrictions on the amount of oil in discharged water, currently limited to 15 parts per million. In normal times, this rule sensibly controls the amount of pollution that can be added to relatively clean ocean water. But this is not a normal time.
Various skimmers and tankers (some of them very large) are available that could eliminate most of the oil from seawater, discharging the mostly clean water while storing the oil onboard. While this would clean vast amounts of water efficiently, the EPA is unwilling to grant a temporary waiver of its regulations.
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Next, the Obama administration can waive the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from operating in U.S. coastal waters. Many foreign countries (such as the Netherlands and Belgium) have ships and technologies that would greatly advance the cleanup. So far, the U.S. has refused to waive the restrictions of this law and allow these ships to participate in the effort.
The combination of these two regulations is delaying and may even prevent the world's largest skimmer, the Taiwanese owned "A Whale," from deploying. This 10-story high ship can remove almost as much oil in a day as has been removed in total—roughly 500,000 barrels of oily water per day. The tanker is steaming towards the Gulf, hoping it will receive Coast Guard and EPA approval before it arrives.
In addition, the federal government can free American-based skimmers. Of the 2,000 skimmers in the U.S. (not subject to the Jones Act or other restrictions), only 400 have been sent to the Gulf. Federal barriers have kept the others on stations elsewhere in case of other oil spills, despite the magnitude of the current crisis. The Coast Guard and the EPA issued a joint temporary rule suspending the regulation on June 29—more than 70 days after the spill.
The Obama administration can also permit more state and local initiatives. The media endlessly report stories of county and state officials applying federal permits to perform various actions, such as building sand berms around the Louisiana coast. In some cases, they were forbidden from acting. In others there have been extensive delays in obtaining permission.
As the government fails to implement such simple and straightforward remedies, one must ask why.
One possibility is sheer incompetence. Many critics of the president are fond of pointing out that he had no administrative or executive experience before taking office. But the government is full of competent people, and the military and Coast Guard can accomplish an assigned mission. In any case, several remedies require nothing more than getting out of the way.
Another possibility is that the administration places a higher priority on interests other than the fate of the Gulf, such as placating organized labor, which vigorously defends the Jones Act.
Finally there is the most pessimistic explanation—that the oil spill may be viewed as an opportunity, the way White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said back in February 2009, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Many administration supporters are opposed to offshore oil drilling and are already employing the spill as a tool for achieving other goals. The websites of the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, for example, all feature the oil spill as an argument for forbidding any further offshore drilling or for any use of fossil fuels at all. None mention the Jones Act.
To these organizations and perhaps to some in the administration, the oil spill may be a strategic justification in a larger battle. President Obama has already tried to severely limit drilling in the Gulf, using his Oval Office address on June 16 to demand that we "embrace a clean energy future." In the meantime, how about a cleaner Gulf?
Mr. Rubin, a professor of economics at Emory University, held several senior positions in the federal government in the 1980s. Since 1991 he has spent his summers on the Gulf.