The wages of central control

I originally thought it was unfair to blame President Obama for the oil spill catastrophe, but subsequent events have proven me wrong. The federal government has not merely been incompetent (which wouldn’t have been Obama’s fault);  it has actively obstructed the cleanup. As far as anyone can tell, Obama has done nothing at all about it.

Here are just the latest revelations of federal obstruction:

  • Recall the Dutch oil-skimming ship that was not permitted to help because of idiotic EPA regulations? About two weeks ago we were told that the government had relented. Alas, that was not the end of the story:

    The Americans, overwhelmed by the catastrophic consequences of the BP spill, finally relented and took the Dutch up on their offer — but only partly. Because the U.S. didn’t want Dutch ships working the Gulf, the U.S. airlifted the Dutch equipment to the Gulf and then retrofitted it to U.S. vessels. And rather than have experienced Dutch crews immediately operate the oil-skimming equipment, to appease labour unions the U.S. postponed the clean-up operation to allow U.S. crews to be trained.

    Even now, with the spill doing untold damage to the Gulf environment and economy, cleaning up the oil spill still plays second fiddle to protectionism. How about those priorities?

  • The semi-approval for Dutch assistance was apparently just a one-off, occasioned by bad press attention. Other equipment is still going unused. For example, the world’s largest oil-skimming ship, the “A Whale”, is headed for the Gulf, but it still doesn’t have government approval to operate. The EPA is holding it up for the same idiotic reasons as the Dutch equipment, and the Coast Guard is also holding it up for reasons that aren’t clear.
  • Obama still hasn’t waived the Jones Act. There are conflicting reports as to whether a waiver is required, but some volunteers evidently believe they cannot operate without a waiver. Why not simply waive the act and remove all doubt? (The Washington Post says we should go even further than that.) The Maritime Cabotage Task Force, a protectionist group, explains why not:

    As noted, the problem is not the Jones Act but possibly one of the overwhelming task of vetting resources necessary to meet this unprecedented disaster. As the needs and available resources are sorted out, every available and useful vessel should be used. However, American vessels and American workers should be given first priority.

    A blanket waiver of the Jones Act, as opposed to a vessel-specific waiver (where no American vessel is available), would do away with that basic, common sense approach. It would effectively outsource to foreigners work that Americans legally should get and very much need, especially in this region and economy

    Protecting the Gulf Coast is not the priority; the priority is to line the pockets of certain unions and business interests. Obviously the Maritime Cabotage Task Force doesn’t speak for Obama, and yet Obama seems to be doing their bidding. If he has a legitimate reason, he should say what it is. Thus far his administration has remained silent except to say that no Jones Act waiver is necessary.

  • In one Alabama town, the fire chief had to defy the government and risk jail to carry out a plan to protect his coast. BP’s pathetic efforts failed within hours, as he had predicted, but still the government would not permit the locals to take steps to protect themselves. He eventually received the government’s blessing, but only after he defied their orders.
  • The command structure of the government effort continues to obstruct efforts, even after weeks of complaints:

    Local officials say they’ve seen little improvement as their requests get bounced around, ignored or even opposed.

    The main problem, they say, is the confusing command structure, which to them seems to have too many generals and not enough battlefield commanders, thus gumming up the ability of local leaders to react to approaching oil.

    “How can you fight a war when you don’t let the people on the ground make decisions,” says Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson. “You’re going to lose that war.”

    Mr. Robinson told the Monitor that requests for more help after a large swath of oil washed up on Pensacola Beach Tuesday night were initially rebuffed because central command in Mobile said they couldn’t put certain kinds of equipment on a national seashore. But most of Santa Rosa Island is a public beach. “How could they not know that?” Robinson said.

The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is a horrific mess, and there’s only so much that the president can do. But there is one way president could make an enormous difference: cut through the red tape so that people can do their best. Unfortunately, that’s one thing of which this president is temperamentally incapable. He believes in centralized power, not in local and individual initiative. This catastrophe is showing how well his model works.

UPDATE: Federal officials work to ensure that oil despoils Alabama’s coast:

According to state disaster relief officials, Alabama conceived a plan — early on — to erect huge booms offshore to shield the approximately 200 miles of the state’s coastline from oil. Rather than install the relatively light and shallow booms in use elsewhere, the state (with assistance from the Coast Guard) canvassed the world and located enough huge, heavy booms — some weighing tons and seven meters high — to guard their coast.

But … no sooner were the booms in place than the Coast Guard, perhaps under pressure from the public comments of James Carville, uprooted them and moved them to guard the Louisiana coastline instead.

So Alabama decided on a backup plan. It would buy snare booms to catch the oil as it began to wash up on the beaches.

But … the Fish and Wildlife Administration vetoed the plan, saying it would endanger sea turtles that nest on the beaches.

So Alabama — ever resourceful — decided to hire 400 workers to patrol the beaches in person, scooping up oil that had washed ashore.

But … OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) refused to allow them to work more than 20 minutes out of every hour and required an hourlong break after 40 minutes of work, so the cleanup proceeded at a very slow pace.

The short answer is that every agency — each with its own particular bureaucratic agenda — was able to veto each aspect of any plan to fight the spill, with the unintended consequence that nothing stopped the oil from destroying hundreds of miles of wetlands, habitats, beaches, fisheries and recreational facilities.

Where was the president? Why did he not intervene in these and countless other bureaucratic controversies to force a focus on the oil, not on the turtles and other incidental concerns?

Why? Because that’s not what this president does.

(Previous post.)

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