Written with Tom Kenworthy, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow.
The catastrophic explosion of the Deepwater Horizon exploratory rig off the coast of Louisiana one month ago cost eleven lives and now threatens the entire Gulf of Mexico with ecological devastation. BP, the foreign oil giant responsible for the disaster, has claimed it was unforeseeable and inconceivable, despite an industry history of similar accidents and years of warnings.
There are obvious limits to how much control the federal government can exert over the frantic and so far hapless effort to stem the catastrophic oil eruption that threatens the entire Gulf of Mexico with ecological devastation. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has recognized the sobering reality the government does not have the equipment or technical expertise to simply shove aside BP and its industry partners:
This administration has done everything we can possibly do to make sure that we push BP to stop the spill and to contain the impact. We have also been very clear that there are areas where BP and the private sector are the ones who must continue to lead the efforts with government oversight, such as the deployment of private sector technology 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to kill the well.
But if government has little choice but to keep the perpetrator on the job at the immediate crime scene, it does have a choice when it comes to operations beyond the urgent task of quelling the erupting well. In addition to the efforts to stop the leaks, BP now controls claims processing, environmental contractors on land and sea, volunteer assistance, access to the disaster site, and data collection.
Federal and state governments in the gulf must take greater charge of containing the ecological impacts and coordinating the response, as the President has full authority to do. This requires a greater mobilization than exists today, and Washington needs to send the message that it is in full command of the disaster response with the following actions:
– One highly visible leader at the White House should lead the command and coordination at the cabinet level between the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, the White House Office of Energy and Climate Policy, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the Department of Defense. Two excellent choices for this role would be Vice President Joe Biden or energy advisor Carol Browner. This leader should also work directly with the affected states’ governors.
– The Federal Emergency Management Agency should be in charge of onshore coastal recovery and disaster response, assisted by the Army Corps of Engineers. The National Guard under the control of each state’s governor should be fully deployed, with Army units if necessary. The EPA, NOAA, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should exercise relevant oversight. And any environmental and disaster response contractors working for BP should instead work directly for the federal government.
– The U.S. Coast Guard should clearly be in charge of surface-water recovery and maritime disaster response. The Vessels of Opportunity and other maritime contractors now working for BP should be under contract with the federal government, including research vessels. The Coast Guard with the EPA, NOAA, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversight should manage dispersant use for cleanup.
– Claims for damages and lost revenues should be put under the authority of the U.S. Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center. As the scope of this disaster far exceeds the NPFC’s traditional resources, other federal, state, and local claims processing resources must be brought to bear, particularly from the Coast Guard’s sister agency FEMA.
– EPA, the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and other law enforcement branches of the federal, state, and local government should be exercising subpoena authority if necessary to seize or monitor all ongoing communications and data collection.
– The EPA should immediately bar BP from new federal contracts — including drilling in federally controlled oil fields — because of its repeated environmental crimes.
– The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must begin a health monitoring program for the most at risk populations so there is a baseline from which to measure health impacts.
– Federal agencies, not BP, should handle spill response hotlines for volunteers, technology ideas, affected wildlife, and others. Full call records need to be logged with incident reports and technology ideas presented publicly on dynamic websites.
– The State Department should continue to reach out to other nations that have experience with disastrous oil spills to see if assistance and ideas are available. This should be a government-to-government effort, not one undertaken by private companies.
BP is required as the responsible party for this apocalyptic disaster to provide full and instant funding for the response by the federal, state, and local governments and their contractors. BP personnel and equipment being used for disaster response in the Gulf should be put under governmental control during the crisis.
BP’s funding should come in the form of an escrow account that draws on BP’s $100 billion in capital reserves, without limit. The federal government should require BP to use its first quarter 2010 profits — $5 billion – to establish the escrow account.
View the original, extended version of the column at the Center for American Progress.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) tells CNN that Obama should send in the military:
If this thing is not fixed today, the president doesn’t have any choice and he better go in and completely take over, perhaps with the military in charge. The military has an apparatus, the organization by which it can bring together the civilian agencies of government and to get this thing done.