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BP oil spill: Obama's living on a prayer

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 24 June 2010

Writing for Channel 4 News, veteran marine biologist Professor Rick Steiner gives the US President a list of "whose ass to kick", arguing that Obama and his Spill Commission need tangible answers.

BP oil spill two months on: Obama and his Spill Commission need tangible answers says Professor Rick Steiner (Image: Getty)

First, I feel compelled to mention that during the Exxon Valdez spill 21 years ago, many Alaskans pressed for then President George Bush Senior to come to Alaska to see the disaster up-close. 

He never did, nor did he deliver an Oval Office speech. 

Bush Sr. did send VP Dan Quayle to Alaska though, whom I personally asked about using that disaster to forge a progressive energy policy for the nation that would cut our reliance on fossil fuel (a lot of good that did!). 

Bush senior was an oilman, and wanted desperately to minimize the political damage of the Exxon Valdez by paying it little presidential attention. 

So regardless of all other shortcomings of the Obama response here, at least he has visited the scene of the crime four times so far.  And that he chose to deliver an Oval Office speech on the disaster, the first in his presidency, attests to the level of attention he is giving the issue.

BP oil spill two months on: More from Rick Steiner
Clean-up: What is BP doing, and how is it managing?
Environmental: Counting the cost to the environment
Political: President Obama's policies are living on a prayer
Financial: BP must set up another $20bn fund

Oval speech: Too much prayer, not enough policy

Unfortunately, there wasn't much new in the President’s Oval Office speech.  The only new things were the announcement of the Gulf Coast Restoration Plan, strangely under command of the Secretary of the Navy, and the $20 billion claims fund

Mostly, I was disappointed that the President discussed in only general terms the need for clean, sustainable energy, without any action item whatsoever. 

We needed to hear exactly what he will propose to move us to the transition quicker as a result of the Gulf spill disaster, not just the same old nice, yet general, feel-good statements.  

At very least, he needs to propose a doubling-up of everything he has done to date on this front, to show this sentiment is real, and more than hollow rhetoric.

Overall, the speech was too much prayer, and not enough policy. 

We need tangible, specific policies to hasten the transition to sustainable energy, and we needed to hear some of them in that speech.  We didn't, which suggests that the inertia the President complained about in this effort is still very much with us today, even in the midst of the Gulf oil spill disaster. 

As well, the Spill Commission he has appointed is now composed of mostly politicians that have little or no direct experience with offshore oil, ocean ecosystems, or oil spill issues.  

Few of the appointees have ever publicly criticized the offshore oil industry or government in any way.  The commission seems strategically picked to be the "yes-we-can get the administration's offshore drilling agenda back on track" commission.  There is already talk of delivering their result sooner than the end of year, to end the deepwater drilling moratorium, and I suspect the Arctic Ocean drilling moratorium as well.

BP's $20bn fund
The announcement of the $20 bn "BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund" to pay claims, outside the judicial system, is one of the most important accomplishments the administration has made to date in this disaster.  

It is also appropriate that BP will forgo paying shareholder dividends this year.  

The $20 billion claims fund will take the claims process out of the court system, and allow more prompt and fair resolution of many of the early claims.  This will save years of heartbreak and misery for claimants wading through the endless court battles to receive compensation, and preserve their right to pursue legal avenues in the future. 

There are about 30,000 Alaska plaintiffs from the Exxon Valdez case that would have loved to have had that sort of arrangement in the Exxon Valdez spill - kudos to the President for this achievement.  

Policy actions
If the Obama administration and the nation wish to lift their moratorium on deepwater drilling, which seems apparent, then they should only do so if they can assure the public that the operations are as safe as humanly possible.  This will require best available technology in all aspects of the drilling, including the newly developed Blowout Preventers with double shear-rams, acoustic triggers, and redundant sealing systems. 

As well, the government should require that exploratory drilling in extreme or sensitive environments also include a companion emergency relief well be drilled along side. 

If for instance, the Deepwater Horizon had a companion relief well being drilled alongside while they were drilling the Macondo well, then the relief well could have intersected and killed the failed well in a matter of weeks (perhaps by the end of April), not the many months that we are now suffering through. 

Senator Lautenberg has just introduced legislation into the US Senate that would require precisely that, and it is a welcome and necessary step in reducing risk of these high-pressure, deepwater operations.

And of course, we are still waiting for the new push for clean, efficient, low-carbon, sustainable energy due to the recognition of the costs of oil, seen so clearly in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. 

BP oil spill two months on: More from Channel 4 News
Timeline: BP oil spill timeline of events 
Fund: BP's $20bn fund - who's in charge and who benefits?
Blame: Congress attacks Tony Hayward over BP spill
PR: BP boss Hayward's latest gaffe a turning point?
Warning: Energy industry needs new engineers

Whose ass to kick?
Regarding the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama recently asked his advisors to tell him "whose ass to kick".

Given our lazy, catastrophic energy policy that has for too long ignored the true cost of our oil addiction, while we knew better, here's my short list: 

As well, perhaps we all need a collective boot for allowing this energy/climate crisis to become so severe, and putting at risk the future of life on earth, including our own.

Professor Rick Steiner, marine conservation biologist, Anchorage Alaska. Professor Steiner has been advising in the Gulf much of the past two months.

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