by Clarence Page

How about that for luck? President Barack Obama makes a big concession to the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd by opening up more offshore lands to drilling and it blows up in his face. Or, at least, one offshore rig did.

With thousands of barrels of oil a day spilling out of a wrecked oilrig leased by BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the administration is leading what looks like a stampede backwards away from the president's recent offshore drilling commitment. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, withdrew his backing from a plan to allow new wells at an existing platform off the California coast. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida called for a halt to offshore exploration. House members intend to hold hearings.

And right wingers, eager to shackle Obama with his own "Katrina," harking back to President George W. Bush's politically disastrous response to that disastrous hurricane, have readjusted their ideological sails fast enough to give you whiplash. Conservative jeer-leaders like Rush Limbaugh, who usually accuse Obama of meddling too much into the private sector, now complain that he didn't meddle in BP's operations sooner. Such gratitude.

That's what the Obama administration gets for taking an oil company's word about the severity of its own unfolding disaster. For a week after the April 20 accident, BP told us that oil was leaking at the rate of 1,000 barrels a day -- until National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist concluded that the leak actually was gushing five times faster than that -- and maybe more!

Only then did the Department of Homeland Security formally request more assistance from the Department of Defense. Perhaps the administration should have learned from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster that oil companies tend to lowball estimates of their disasters until they can't sugarcoat them anymore.

Only then do the CEOs come out, as BP chief executive Tony Hayward did this week to take the "responsibility" but not the blame for the spill at the rig that is operated by Transocean and leased by BP.

Hayward promised in interview that the petroleum giant would pay any "legitimate" claims of losses resulting from the ruptured pipeline. Unfortunately, history shows that promise from an oil company to be as reliable as "I'll still love you in the morning" and "Your call is very important to us."

The Oil Pollution Act, passed a year after the Exxon Valdez disaster stipulates that "each responsible party" for an oil spill is liable for cleanup costs. But you can still smell oil from the Exxon Valdez in the air and find it under the rocks in Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground 21 years ago.

Some species of marine life never recovered and neither did some of the plaintiffs in a class action suit filed by those whose livelihoods were disrupted by the spill. Exxon Mobil fought the original jury award of $5 billion in punitive damages for almost 20 years until the Supreme Court reduced its burden to about $500 million.

The potential Gulf cleanup costs are "terra incognita, a complete unknown," said climate activist Mike Tidwell, whose 2003 book "Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast" predicted many of the environmental calamities that unfolded with Hurricane Katrina.

"The Gulf is not the rocky coast of Alaska," said Tidwell, who directs the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "Once oil gets into the salt marshes, gets distributed in the roots and deposited in the muddy soil, I'm not sure if a real cleanup is really possible."

Whether they can afford it or not, we can expect BP to fight at least as vigorously as Exxon (after 1999 ExxonMobil) fought all the way to the Supreme Court. For all their lovely words of public relations, oil companies' first and foremost "social responsibility," as the late Nobel Economist Milton Friedman argued, is not to the environment, not to their workers, the government or even their customers but to their shareholders.

In the meantime, this new Gulf disaster underscores our need to wean ourselves off of our national oil dependency. That won't happen overnight, but we can make a lot of progress in the time it takes to fight a major oil spill's lawsuits.


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Drill, Baby, Drill? Make BP Pay | Politics

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