The federal government's responsibility is clear when it comes to public safety and health emergencies. That's why there is a government office — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — set up explicitly to provide rescue, emergency shelter, food and healthcare in a disaster. President George W. Bush dropped the ball after Hurricane Katrina when he failed to fully mobilize federal resources, responding with too little, too late.
There are no proven protocols in place for responding to an oil well blowout at a depth of 5,000 feet; the country is only now learning this humbling lesson. The lack of such plans is the fault of BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and the officials at the Minerals Management Service who approved the drilling operation without first demanding proof the company could handle a catastrophic accident.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion is a technical and environmental disaster that did not immediately represent a public safety hazard. The Obama administration was right to leave the work to BP and Transocean during those early days. The companies knew the rigs and had the technical expertise for a first response.
But once it became clear that the responsible parties had no clear fix, the administration was too slow to respond and too passive in its approach. President Obama should have raised the level of alarm weeks ago. The government should have been reacting as BP's overseer, not as its assistant. If nothing else, the administration should have been planning the steps it would take to protect the environment, which clearly falls within its area of responsibility. Louisiana should not have had to plead for permission to build barriers to protect its estuaries; instead, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency should have been mobilized immediately to devise plans for sheltering environmentally fragile areas along the coast.
At the end of last week, Obama stepped up his rhetoric on the oil spill, vowing to hold BP responsible and financially liable. A special commission will investigate the cause of the spill and help steer a course toward future decisions on drilling. Criminal charges might even be brought.
But none of that addresses the real concern: that neither the two companies nor the government know how to stop the spill. Obama should address this calamitous emergency by convening the top minds from industry, government and academia around the world. Their task would be to find a way to stop the oil flow and stave off, to the extent possible, decades of environmental devastation. Some observers liken this to the Manhattan Project, the group of scientists who developed the atomic bomb. But the goal would be a weapon to save the gulf, not to destroy an enemy.