By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Over the weekend, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar threatened BP with a government take-over of cleanup operations in the gulf: “If we find they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately.” That’s not what the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Thad W. Allen, said. Admiral Allen stepped back from government threats to take over: “To push BP out of the way, it would raise a question: Replace them with what?” Admiral Allen, speaking at the White House yesterday, said he wouldn’t recommend that the government take control, and the Wall Street Journal today reported that Allen said the government doesn’t have any more technology or expertise than the oil company does to deal with the leaking well.
[Check out our roundup of editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.]
The question is: do we go with the judgment of the secretary of the Interior, who is a former senator from land-locked Colorado, or the Coast Guard’s top man on the water--a 40-year Coast Guardsman who played a lead role in cleaning up after Katrina? If that’s the choice, I’m going with Admiral Allen. He says BP is the only one who has the ability to stop this, not the government. He would know, and I believe him.
So why are so many people demanding that the government jump in and take over? It’s the same attitude we always hear--that the government needs to do something, anything, when there’s a crisis. But it’s clear that in this case, the government has no answer. (I’d bet Kevin Costner has more of an answer than the White House does.) No EPA back-up plan was in place. If you listen to Admiral Allen, it’s clear the government has no idea how to stop the devastation. He told the Washington Post this morning it could be August before it’s plugged--and that’s with BP in charge, not the White House.
Instead of looking to the government for a solution, let’s try a more free-market answer. BP recently announced its 2010 first-quarter profits, which were $6.08 billion--in just three months--more than double the same period a year ago. Byron Grote, BP’s chief financial officer, said a week after the leak began that it was too early to talk about how much it would be spending on cleanup. According to the Houston Chronicle, he said, "It will be very much dependent on how things evolve in the next couple of months," he said. We’ll just see, is the attitude. Just a cost of doing business as it “evolves” over the next few months.
One way to get BP’s attention is by hitting their bottom line. Let’s raise the cost of doing business this way. In October, OSHA fined BP more than $87 million for workplace safety violations; in 2005 it was fined $21 million for a 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery that killed 15. How about the same for this explosion? Or perhaps the EPA should begin imposing millions in fines every day going forward that the leak is not plugged. That might get their attention. If those quarterly profits start dropping because of massive fines, they’ll get moving on plugging it faster.
Or how about a consumer boycott of BP? According to the BP website, BP is the largest oil and gas producer in North America and one of the largest gasoline retailers in the United States, selling under both the BP and Arco labels. Why not try a boycott like consumers did in 1989 after Exxon was dragging its feet cleaning up the Valdez spill? Three weeks ago, the Washington Examiner talked to BP station owners and customers, and reported “no apparent sign” of a consumer backlash at the pump. "I haven't noticed anything yet," said Jeff Dolch, a BP station owner in Baltimore. "But if (the spill) hits hard and the news starts showing pictures of animals, at that point it may start to happen."
In the weeks since, the BP website started live-streaming shots of the oil pouring into the gulf, cable news has plenty of oil-soaked bird pictures, and now both the oil and the toxic chemicals used to break it up are spreading over three states’ shorelines. Time for something to happen, and let’s not assume the government’s going to have the answer.