Skim, Baby, Skim

How would a Republican president have handled the Gulf oil spill?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Plug one leak, and another springs up. That’s the lesson the Obama administration is learning after BP successfully capped the oil well that has leaked into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months. But now it’s not oil that’s escaping. It’s gas. As November approaches, Republicans are emitting kilotons of hot air over Obama’s handling of the clean-up.

“This is mainly a failure of the administration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Sunday. “BP caused the spill. It’s BP’s responsibility to plug that leak.” But, McConnell said, the federal government has been slow to mop it up. On Fox News, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana accused Obama of ignoring the spill for political reasons: “I’m afraid he’s decided to deal with this issue, at least politically, by not coming back here at all, and trying to move it off the front page rather than dealing with the situation forcefully.”

Entertain for a moment the possibility that these Republican criticisms are not mere politics but fair-minded critiques of the administration. What, exactly, would Republicans have done differently, were they the ones in charge?

The biggest difference, based on their public statements, is that they would have mobilized more oil-collecting skimmers sooner. “It took the administration 70 days to order skimmers down to the Gulf,” McConnell said on Sunday. Sen. George LeMieux of Florida, the leader of the Skim, Baby, Skim caucus, has been equally frustrated. “We need every resource, domestic and foreign alike, in the Gulf, and we needed them yesterday,” he said on the Senate floor June 30. “In fact, we needed them 50 days ago.” At the beginning of June, there were still only about 100 skimmers in the Gulf. (There are an estimated 1,600 skimmers available off the coast of the continental United States.) It wasn’t until late June that the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency issued an order freeing up additional skimmers from other parts of the country to deploy to the Gulf Coast. If Obama were serious about the clean-up, Republicans say, he or Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen would have demanded more skimmers sooner.

Then again, a Republican president would have faced the same complications that Obama did. According to the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, the number of skimmers in the Gulf increased by 450, to 550 total, in the month of June, before Allen relaxed the rules that would allow more skimmers. Since then, the number has increased by only 150 more. So the newly relaxed rules haven’t made a huge difference so far. Plus, skimmers are just one element of the clean-up. Crews are also using chemical dispersants and controlled burns to get rid of oil. And in many cases, those methods are more effective than skimming, which collects mostly water. The nature of the spill has changed, too. When the leak began, the oil spill was a large, thick, monolithic blob, requiring fewer, larger skimmers. Later, after it was broken up by dispersants into smaller, isolated blotches, many smaller skimmers could collect it more effectively.

Another major plank of a GOP president’s clean-up effort would presumably be to waive the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, which prohibits foreign vessels from making deliveries between American ports. President Bush waived the law in 2005 to allow foreign assistance in New Orleans. Republicans argue that Obama’s refusal to waive it has prevented foreign countries from donating vessels and other equipment to help clean up the spill. “There are thousands of ships around the world” that would help, if only Obama would let them, LeMieux told Fox News.

Not quite, says the Department of Homeland Security. Foreign-flagged vessels have been helping out with the clean-up since the very beginning, and in mid-June, the number was up to 15. It’s true that the State Department has been slow to accept some offers of foreign assistance: At the end of June, about 80 percent of the international offers made were still “under consideration,” according to a State Department count. But the number has since improved, with 66 percent of government offers accepted, according to a different tally by the National Incident Command.

More importantly, the Jones Act is irrelevant to such offers. For one thing, the Jones Act already excepts vessels dedicated to cleaning up oil spills, so it would never keep a foreign skimmer away. Plus, the Jones Act applies only within three miles of shore. When it comes to collecting oil near the Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, the Jones Act has no sway. In only two cases has the administration needed to waive the Jones Act after the BP spill, and that was to make sure two foreign vessels could return to the coast in the event of a hurricane. “In no case has any offer of assistance been declined because of the Jones Act or similar laws,” says the Department of Homeland Security. Rather, the United States has turned down assistance because, for example, the dispersants being offered aren’t approved, or the skimmers don’t skim properly.

Another difference between Obama and a hypothetical GOP president: The Republican would have taken a stronger leadership role, rather than delegating to BP. “Instead of acting like BP’s assistant in this effort, the administration should act as an overseer,” says Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida. He would also have tried harder to stop the spill. “The president should have brought in the best minds and experts from industry, from academia, and from governments around the world to develop an effective response,” says Stearns. Instead of James Cameron, perhaps Michael Bay.

A Republican president would also have visited the Gulf Coast a lot more than Obama. Although Obama has swung through the Gulf four times since the initial explosion on April 20 and is planning a fifth trip, some Republicans say that’s not enough. They want on-the-ground, Rudy Giuliani-style leadership. “I do not want to see him in Wisconsin giving a political speech,” said LeMieux. “I want to see him in Florida getting these skimmers there, overcoming obstacles, solving problems, managing through this crisis, so we can protect our beaches, protect our estuaries, and protect the way of life for the people of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.” How much time focusing on the spill is enough? LeMieux said that during the 2005 hurricane seasons he watched Jeb Bush dedicate “12, 14, 16 hours a day to make things happen, to get results.” Indeed, Obama’s fifth visit may fix everything.

A Republican president would also treat BP and other oil companies better. He wouldn’t be kind, of course (or apologize)—any president would have publicly shamed BP. But he probably wouldn’t use the spill as an excuse to crack down on all oil companies, safety conscious or not. Likewise, a Republican president would face less internal pressure to force BP to create a $20 billion escrow fund. And he would almost certainly not announce a moratorium on deep-sea oil drilling—especially after a federal judge slapped it down as unconstitutional. Vitter, along with Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, is currently sponsoring a bill that would overturn the moratorium. Vitter estimates that the moratorium will kill 140,000 jobs. From their perspective, the damage to the economy caused by the moratorium outweighs the risk of another accident.

Lastly, a Republican president wouldn’t leverage the spill to sell America on the importance of alternative energies and pass comprehensive energy reform. But then again, a Democrat might not, either.

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