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Watchdogs and lapdogs

In the wake of the BP oil spill, conservatives are no longer talking up the benefits of deregulation

The Sunday print column, expanded:

A president is most imperiled when he becomes hostage to events over which he has no control. Barack Obama certainly didn't precipitate the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe - that dishonor goes to the BP profiteers who were recklessly raping our natural resources - but he's taking the hit nonetheless. He's the one who has to face the electorate, not BP. Here we are on Day 48, and that ongoing gush on the Gulf floor threatens to become a metaphor for the draining of his political capital.

The worst damage is already done; according to the best government estimates, roughly 800,000 new gallons of oil will spew into the waters each day until some time in August, when BP tries its next fix. Obama is stuck with a hole in the ocean and many months of crisis management. He can exude competence and leadership by holding BP accountable for its blunders, and ensuring that BP pays the incalculable cleanup tab, but that's just the reactive stuff.

He needs to do something thematically proactive. He needs to treat this crisis as an opportunity to make a renewed case for an activist, effective federal government. It's the perfect time to do it. In the wake of the BP spill, I have yet to hear virtually any Republican (except for Ron Paul) insist that what we need in the future is an unfettered oil industry, free to drill baby drill without any meaningful oversight from the feds. Their silence on this issue speaks volumes. What we're now witnessing, in the Gulf of Mexico, is the dark side of the deregulation credo.

In a British newspaper the other day, BP CEO Tony "I Want My Life Back" Hayward confessed that his firm had not been fully prepared to fix a deep-water oil leak; in his own words, "what is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool-kit." That acknowledgment is nauseating, though not surprising. We already know that BP cut corners to seal off the well, because it was rushing to drill elsewhere. We already know that BP was seeking broader exclusions from the federal environmental rules because, in its words, it wanted to "avoid unnecessary paperwork and time delays." We already know that BP's top priority was to maximize profit and productivity, not to act as a steward for the public interest in a fragile ecosystem; indeed, the latest Gallup poll reports that 73 percent of Americans view BP's response to the spill as "poor" or "very poor."

But the real problem is that the federal watchdogs have long been lapdogs for the oil industry. BP and its subcontractors were drilling in deep water a mere 40 miles from Louisiana without any "tools" in their "tool-kit," because the feds who were supposed to protect us from such capitalistic excess were basically in bed with the drillers. As one federal watchdog official admitted last month in a congressional hearing, "There is no enforcement." It might be helpful, in the future, if the watchdogs actually barked when provoked. It might be helpful if the president required such training.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the Interior Department agency in charge of oversight has worn blinders. The oil drillers weren't required to prove that they were taking steps to reduce their environmental impact; nor were they required to prove that they had the means to deal with an unforeseen catastrophe. Federal environmental law has long required such things, but the agency, known as the Minerals Management Service, routinely waived the rules. Between 2005 and 2007, the MMS waived those rules for Gulf of Mexico projects roughly 750 times - while decreeing, in three reviews of its own, that the prospects for a Gulf disaster, and the consequences for marine life, were downright minimal, despite repeated scientific warnings to the contrary.

In those years, the MMS regulators even allowed their oil-drilling friends to fill out the government inspection reports; they reportedly praised their own work in pencil, and the regulators traced over the words in ink. But that behavior wasn't nearly as chummy as the evidence, gathered in 2008 by Interior's inspector general, that some MMS regulators "had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives."  

It's not surprising, of course, that the oil industry ran rampant during the Bush era, given its cozy relations with Bush and his vice president. Obama, however, was elected in part because he promised a restoration of competent governance and a reinvigoration of the public interest. At least with respect to the oil-drilling issue, his promise has not been matched by performance.

Even now, the MMS is still wielding its rubber stamp; in the aftermath of the BP explosion, the agency has reportedly waived the environmental rules for eight new Gulf of Mexico projects, which means that the drillers were not required to spell out the risks and safety issues, or to detail what precautions they planned to take.

Nothing new there; BP got the same sweetheart deal on Obama's watch 14 months ago. MMS exempted BP's Gulf project from all those pesky requirements, essentially giving BP free rein to drill in deep water without any crisis tools in its tool kit - all this, despite the fact that the Interior Department warned MMS six years ago that no such exemptions should be given to drillers who ply their trade in "relatively untested deep water."

Obama finally did acknowledge, in a rare press conference 10 days ago, that he had not done nearly enough to eradicate the agency's lapdog culture; as he put it, "There wasn't sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place." Gee, ya think? On his watch, the toothless agency blithely accepted BP's assurance that the worst-case catastrophe would yield 250,000 gallons of oil a day (less than one third of the actual daily gush) - and, worse yet, it never required that BP come up with a worst-case response plan.

This is the kind of laissez faire government behavior that conservatives always say they want. Well, tell it to the people whose livelihoods depend on a clean Gulf of Mexico. Anybody who still thinks that the free market suffers from too much "socialist" regulation should go scrub the birds. 

President Obama can't control events on the Gulf floor, not unless he personally sends down Jack Bauer in a frogman suit. But he at least can make good on his new promise to clean house with "sufficient urgency," to install a tough oversight regime that will halt the de facto privatization of our fragile national resources. Given the disaster we are now witnessing, few among us would argue that more deregulation is the answer. Indeed, on this issue, the new definition of a liberal is a conservative whose beachfront property is slathered in oil.