What makes a teacher certain that students are cribbing from one anothers' work isn't whether they all get the right answer, but whether they come up with the same wrong answer. That analogy came to mind while the heads of major oil companies were testifying Tuesday about how superior their oil-rig safety plans for the gulf were to BP's. It turns out that all of their plans contained similar references to protecting walruses — which don't even live in the gulf. They included the same misinformation because they were all drawn up by the same company. The company, it turns out, that also drew up BP's plan.
It was a gotcha moment at the congressional hearings on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but one with deeper truths attached: No one, including oil companies, knows how to quickly contain and clean up a catastrophic spill. The government officials in charge either never read the companies' reports or just didn't care. And opening new areas to offshore oil drilling, with the attendant dangers, is a bad idea.
As the disaster in the gulf gushed on this week, at least President Obama began backing up his usual vague assurances with concrete, though partial, action.
After talks with Obama, BP agreed to set aside $20 billion in an escrow fund for claims against it; the money will be collected and disbursed by a third party. Obama found the right person to oversee that fund, attorney Kenneth Feinberg, the "executive pay czar" for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The president also successfully pressured BP into suspending its dividend payments, though that's something BP should have been offering to do from the start, if only for its own public relations benefit.
The president also named an outside investigator to clean house at whatever portion of the newly split Minerals Management Services retains watchdog authority over drilling permits. Michael R. Bromwich, a lawyer, doesn't know much about oil, but that's not what the MMS needs. It needs an outsider questioning everything from the ground up.
The escrow fund may not be big enough to fully cover BP's financial responsibility to the residents around the gulf and the families of the dead oil-rig workers, and it doesn't begin to repay the taxpayers for environmental damage and expenses related to stopping and trying to contain the spill. But the president also has to own up to the government's possible liability as well. The MMS, after all, made its own foolish calculation that the chance of a deep-water blowout was too remote to bother with an emergency plan. The coziness of the agency with oil companies is a holdover from previous administrations — yes, George W. Bush, but others as well. And the Obama administration was too slow to take action to protect sensitive wetlands and wildlife from the spill, just as it was too quick before the spill to call for expanding the reach of oil exploration.