The price of limited government

Thirty seven days and counting. British Petroleum is now attempting to inject heavy mud a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico to plug its gushing Deep Horizon oil well. BP claims that only 5000 barrels a day are leaking from the well. 60,000 barrels is a more realistic estimate, and it may turn out to be even more than that. By putting so many dangerous oil dispersants on the surface of the oil, BP is mitigating the public impact of the spill. Although some oil is leaching into Louisiana marshes and onto Alabama beaches, the dispersant is drastically reducing this problem. The vast majority of this oil is somewhere below the surface, wreaking who knows what havoc on the Gulf’s marine life.

It is clear at this point that even if this spill were capped tonight, it will be the largest oil spill in history. It may turn out to be less visible than the 1988 spill in the Puget Sound, thanks to all the dispersants being used to hide the problem. It is likely though that this catastrophe will be felt for many years, if not decades. It may be the seminal event that ends deep water oil exploration in America for good. Based on recent polls, it might also serve as a catalyst for moving toward a clean energy future. There is nothing like an egregious example to focus the nation’s attention on a problem.

Meanwhile, the public is losing patience with the Obama Administration’s handling of the problem. In actuality, the federal government is doing quite a bit. Unfortunately, what it is doing is trying to mitigate the effects of the spill that has already happened but which it is powerless to solve itself. For example, it is helping coordinate the laying of millions of feet of booms that may help keep the oil from coming up on beaches and marshes. I work for the U.S. Geological Survey. Our director has been camped out on the Gulf Coast working eighteen hour days helping to marshal the USGS response to the problem. (Yes, we do have plenty of scientists who can help with the problem. After all, assessing the likelihood of new areas of oil is part of our mission.) Many other agencies are doing the same thing. Unfortunately, while we can put a man on the moon and cure many diseases, there are still some things even the great and mighty federal government cannot yet do. One of those things is fix a spewing oil well a mile below sea level.

Why? Because Congress has never told the government it should be directly in this business. It probably will be in the future. We do have some research submarines that can descend to those depths, but not many and as best I can tell none equipped with the specialized equipment needed to solve a problem like this. Even our navy’s submarines rarely go more than 2000 feet below sea level. Why? Well, it’s very hard for a submarine to go that deep. The water pressure on hulls becomes enormous. It is hard to put any man down there for any length of time, and even if you did have the right vessel it cannot go up and down quickly without subjecting its crew to the effect of the bends. The oil companies though do have some robotic equipment that can handle those depths. It’s just that nobody ever required them to develop and test machines that could fix problems like this. All those safety measures were supposed to prevent this accident from ever occurring. It does appear that the personnel at the Minerals Management Service were unduly under the influence of the oil industry. Some federal employees of MMS illegally accepted gifts, trips and even prostitutes. These employees were identified some time ago and many were actually fired. The oil companies determined these bribes were much less costly than the alternatives. It is very clear that there was an incestuous and unhealthy relationship between regulators and those being regulated.

Granted, the president can and probably should be more on top of the situation. He should be and probably is knocking some heads. But the sad reality of the situation is that while the government can bring resources to bear on the problem, it really can’t fix this problem. In the worst scenario we will have to wait sixty more days for BP to complete a relief well to staunch the flow from the well. In the meantime we have to hope that the desperate measure of injecting heavy mud and then concrete will cap the well.

It should be noted that previous administrations, principally Republican, were far more attuned to giving the oil companies whatever they desired than regulating them. As with the financial crisis, this is largely a problem that the Obama Administration inherited. Granted it has been in office sixteen months, but with cries from Republicans to “drill baby drill” and with a major economic crisis, working on deep sea drilling safety was on no one’s major list of problems. The public however is simply impatient. It wants things done, and it wants them fixed now even if the federal government cannot fix them. The public is fickle about these things. Many of these same people just six weeks ago were calling for limited government. Unfortunately, this is an example of what can happen when you have limited and corrupt government. If Tea Party members succeed in controlling Congress and the White House, limited government would likely not include regulating the oil industry at all. If they decided it was a governmental matter at all, they would push it down to the states.

This unfortunate incident simply reinforces that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who before the incident was all about limited government, is taking the federal government to task for not solving this problem. The smell of overwhelming hypocrisy from that area of the country is nearly as overwhelming as the smell of surface petroleum. It is easy to be in favor of limited government until, of course, you need the government not to be limited.

If the government’s mission is now to include this as well, then expect that government will grow and cost more. Taking steps like splitting up the Minerals Management Service into three agencies is long overdue. This is something unsexy that the government can do to address future problems, but it does nothing to solve the immediate crisis. I can say this: it won’t be cheap but if we truly want to enlarge the size of government to ensure accidents like this are unlikely to happen in the future, the government will find a way. It may take a decade and cost billions of dollars, and it may raise the cost of gasoline a dime a gallon, but government can make it happen. It just will not happen overnight.

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