As a routine strategy, “managing expectations” is the best way to deal with disaster. It is easy to understand why BP’s first instinct was to keep the video feed of the oil spill 5,000 feet underground from flowing to the public. BP is continuing to harass and to limit access of reporters from viewing and reporting damaged wildlife. Those oiled birds and sea turtles are toxic to corporate power. The images also contribute substantially to the pressures rising on the Obama administration, as the Gulf of Mexico turns into a horror over a long, hot summer.
Up to this moment, ‘managed expectations’ (the term inadvertently used by Coast Guard Admiral Mary Landry in an early press conference on the BP Oil disaster) has been Plan A in the Gulf of Mexico. Plan A has fallen apart. Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, illustrated the point. On Thursday, he said oil patches — in an area just west of the Florida tourist haven of Pensacola — should continue over the next several days. “We’re going to continue to see this type of impact for the next 72 hours… We really need to keep our attention on this.” 72 hours, until the next 72 hours for years if not decades.
In this context, the admission by the federal government that oil spill rates have been vastly under-reported signals a shift. But the shift doesn’t answer the question: what to do when efforts to “manage expectations” are as poorly anchored as the cement cap that BP, Halliburton, and Transocean deployed in Deepwater Horizon’s Macondo well? Do the unprecedented: freeze the US assets of BP, Halliburton and Transocean until a process is undertaken and fully funded to establish a trust to payout damages. That is the only Plan B.
President Obama should have made his top goal putting muscle back into enforcement capacity of environmental regulatory agencies; but he didn’t, and he didn’t for the same reasons that Bill Clinton didn’t: other priorities were more important. It goes without saying, that from its first week in office the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney undertook as a principle goal the evisceration of environmental laws and the regulatory authority of federal agencies like the Minerals Management Service.
Today, there is no shortage of US Senators, President Obama, or local elected officials (who mostly oppose environmental regulations until they need them, and then it’s too late) covering the scene. The voice of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal on TV, holding the end of a suction hose sucking up ten gallons an hour as the BP well spills tens thousand gallons an hour, merely underscores the point.
The political risks in a federal government takeover are unquantifiable. But they are not unlimited like the damage inflicted on Gulf fisheries, wildlife, and economies that have just discovered the environment really does come first. Already, the Florida legislature is agitated about the possible ramifications to tax revenues during a time of the worst budget crises since the Great Depression. At the end of the day, the principle accomplishment of a federal take-over would not be to make impacted citizens, businesses and the environment whole again. Consider the case of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska where, more than 20 years after the damage, restitution is a myth and fisheries have still not recovered.
A take-over would provide an opportunity that no American president has ever grasped, and could not grasp without a catastrophe like this: put the case before the US Supreme Court to answer the question: who is more powerful, people or corporations? That is Plan B.