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What Obama Should Have Said to BP

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Jim Young/Reuters
Governor Charlie Crist and Barack Obama at Casino Beach, Pensacola, Florida, June 15, 2010

Barack Obama’s demand, in his June 15 speech, that the former British Petroleum Company create an escrow account, to guarantee the funds that will be needed to deal with the consequences of the continuing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, should have been made weeks ago, and should surely have been framed more strongly than it was.

The President, in this matter, continues to demonstrate the quality, laudable in itself, but in politics extraordinarily dangerous, of assuming that those he is dealing with are as reasonable and well-intentioned as he is himself. In fact they are often driven by ruthlessly self-interested motives that leave him in a position of seeming weakness and unwillingness to defend not only national but his own political interests.

At the end of May one saw the President on international television walking on a Louisiana beach, accompanied—off-scene—by hundreds if not thousands of newsmen, broadcasters, and cameramen. He seemed abject. He bent over and picked up a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers. He shook his head in concern. A cutaway showed his speeches earlier in this affair declaring that his administration is in charge of the great effort to save America’s coast and waters from the terrible pollution that is spreading as a result of a volcano of oil erupting from the sea’s floor and meeting the sickly-colored, toxic chemicals being mixed into the water that are meant to disperse it.

In his June 15 speech, Mr. Obama finally insisted that BP would pay for all the damage and cleanup and would be held responsible for any illegalities; and the next day at the White House BP agreed to an independently administered $20 billion escrow fund, while the full costs to the Gulf region are far from clear.

In the press conferences given by the President and the BP chairman that followed the meeting it was clear that the American government still does not control this situation. BP alone will determine what is done with respect to the oil geyser and its promised closure. While it will make available the $20 billion compensation fund, the timing, terms, and ultimate worth of BP’s assurances of compensation and reparation remain open to interpretation and change.

How can the President possibly say that his administration has “been in charge”? BP has been in charge from the start—it and its contract companies, all of them desperately trying to plug the hole in the bottom of the sea, and all defending corporate and fiscal interests of their own. The President’s associates and advisers have apparently decided that the agencies of the United States government are technically incompetent to give instructions to BP, which seems improbable. But they certainly can and must tell BP what priorities must be set, and they must establish goals to be met, and on what timescale.

BP’s lawyers and lobbyists have just as desperately been striving to allow BP to unload responsibility upon anyone or everyone else, including incompetent or irresponsible or compromised federal regulators.

Allow me, in the style of the metropolitan columnists who influence Washington, to draft what the President might have said in his June 15 speech:

My friends:

The American nation has suffered a grievous blow from the catastrophe produced in the Gulf by what formerly was known as the British Petroleum Company. This is the latest in a series of major accidents produced in this company’s American operations, causing loss of lives among its workers, unforgivable human suffering by private citizens, and great damage to private and public interests, continuing today in the Gulf.

I have therefore today given orders that the American functions of this company be provisionally seized, or placed in temporary receivership, by the American government, as in recent months we have been forced to seize banks and corporations devastated by economic crisis, such as General Motors, AIG, and certain financial institutions.

BP’s American management will be placed under public authority and will be instructed to terminate the oil emergency as rapidly as possible and in disregard of whatever costs must be incurred by the company. This effort will be conducted by BP through its own best efforts, closely supervised by officers of the United States Coast Guard and Navy, the Energy and Treasury Departments of our government, and will be accompanied by an investigation by the Justice Department and its executive agencies, including the FBI, for any possible evidence of fraud, malfeasance or profiteering, contributing to this disaster. None of these agencies of government will incur any responsibility whatever for the decisions and actions of BP while conducting its operations to terminate the oil blowout.

In no circumstances will company, proprietary, or stockholder interest be given priority over measures to terminate this emergency and to safeguard the assets or interests of the United States public or government. No funds of this company shall be expended on political lobbying intended to influence Congress or the executive agencies of federal government until this emergency has formally been determined to have been ended.

Clearly, losses to British pension funds and other British shareholders of BP should be of concern to the British government. However those individuals and institutions investing in companies with notoriously controversial histories assume the accompanying risks.

The Oil Pollution Act signed into law in 1990 greatly expanded the US government’s ability and resources necessary to respond to oil spills; and it does not preempt state action to impose additional liability, which may be unlimited, with penalties and damages in addition to federal liabilities that may extend to prison sentences.

I am instructing that all BP assets within the United States, or in its surrounding waters, including funds immediately at its disposal, and all other BP funds accessible to the United States government, be temporarily seized and sequestered so as to prevent the transfer of any funds or assets of this company outside United States jurisdiction and access. The disposition of those assets will eventually be determined by the courts or by a new independent federal agency, with priority given to the reimbursement of persons and property-holders victimized by this catastrophe, and the redressment of damage or destruction to public assets and municipal, state, and national interests for which the former British Petroleum corporation is deemed by the courts, or by the independent agency, to have been responsible.”

This is what the American people wanted to hear. President Obama wishes to be seen as decisive and a leader? Here was his opportunity. He wants a Democratic Congress elected in the fall? And a second presidential term for himself? This could have made a decisive contribution to those ambitions, as well as assuring necessary help to millions of people and repairing grave damage to the environment.

He then could have concluded his speech by saying to his political opponents that any Republican or Democrat who wishes to run for office in November as an opponent of these Obama administration crisis measures—and as a defender of BP corporate and stockholder interests, or its customary executive remuneration and financial practices—as against the national interest of the United States and redress of the damage that continues at this moment to be done to the United States and its citizens, would be more than welcome to do so.

June 16, 2010

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