News Story

Policy Analyst Reaction: How to Fix the Gulf Oil Spill

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is now considered the largest offshore spill in U.S. history as it closes in on its 50th day. The British Petroleum oil company has been attempting to stop the spill since it started April 20 after a well blowout.

What should the federal government response be?

A sample of opinions and suggestions:

Henry Payne, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Detroit News cartoonist: Washington has already done enough damage to the U.S. oil energy sector by cordoning off vast stretches of coastal and mainland (see ANWAR) lands rich in oil resources and forcing oil companies far out and a mile down in the Gulf to extract an essential energy resource. Leave capping the leak to BP, then assist the company with federal naval and Coast Guard resources to clean up the spill and send BP the check for services provided.

Despite former-Clinton advisor Robert Reich's suggestion that Washington take over BP's Gulf operations, the fact is BP is in the best position to resolve the well breach. It is in the company's self-interest - both legally as well as financially - to find the most efficient solution. Similarly - and as in past Santa Barbara and Exxon-Valdez spills - the company should pay the full cost of cleanup.

Russ Harding, director of Mackinac Center for Public Policy's Property Rights Network:  The federal government has a significant role. Their role is to primarily get out of the way. The fix is an engineering one and the feds do not have the experience or expertise to accomplish that. However they can act as a partner to BP rather than an adversary by helping them to cut through regulatory roadblocks put up by federal bureaucrats - which is important in expediting the fix and cleanup.

The feds have a role in objectively figuring out what went wrong from a standards and or regulatory execution standpoint. Unfortunately the direction the Obama administration seems to be taking is to deflect blame from their inept handling of the oil spill. Their political response will not be helpful in preventing problems in the future.

Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst, Mackinac Center for Public Policy: The immediate priority should be for all sides to call off the political circus, stop grandstanding and start behaving like grownups. That applies to chest-thumping calls from the administration to criminally prosecute and "keep their boot on the neck of" the oil company, and the "gotcha games" being played by Republicans and some on the right who are cynically placing the focus on the President: "Why hasn't he fixed it yet?"

Puh-lease. In ascribing such omnipotence and omniscience to the President and his minions, supposed-believers in limited government merely promote the present era's statist deification of all-powerful, infinitely-capable Big Government.

Next, we as a people need to be mature and realistic about the energy realities that are part-and-parcel of enjoying the comforts, conveniences and broadened horizons that industrial civilization has provided to our species. Specifically, even with the most rigorous conservation practices imaginable, the magnitudes of energy required by this way of life far exceed what could ever be provided by green fantasies including wind, solar, "biofuels" and all the rest.

Yes fossil fuels are not forever, and gradually over the next century their cost will rise to where it no longer makes sense to burn them. But that doesn't mean we'll be either replacing them with windmills or returning to some pre-industrial 18th century life on the farms. It does mean that other concentrated sources of energy like nuclear power and possibly geothermal will eventually supplant most coal, gas and oil.

But that will not happen overnight, and in the meantime our civilization - nay, our species - will continue to require the "subsidy" of massive quantities of fossil fuels. Including oil from under the oceans.

Just to strip away any illusions, here is what would happen if all fossil fuels were suddenly withdrawn today: The death by starvation of 90 percent or more of all human beings, the collapse of civilization, and the reversion to a new dark age, "made all the more sinister by the lights of perverted science," to use the formulation of an earlier era's statesman (Churchill) speaking in a different context.

These realities are the starting point for any discussion of the government's role in the regulation of energy production. The current disaster has made obvious the necessity for applying fail-safe measures to deep-sea drilling similar conceptually to the latest nuclear plant designs (if something goes wrong the plant simply stops fissioning without any human or mechanical intervention needed).

I certainly don't know how to do that, and can guarantee that neither does any politician or government bureaucrat. The answers will be found by engineers working on the frontiers of technology, employed by profit-seeking companies.

The incentives are already in place for those firms to do everything possible to avoid disasters like the current one: BP may very well go bankrupt, wiping out shareholders' stakes and making its managers unemployable, if not paupers. These incentives have suddenly become dramatically stronger and more stark. The after-the-fact posturing of politicians won't add to them one iota.