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Administration has obligation to do more on oil spill

By Kate Sheppard

Earlier I asked why President Obama hasn't done more to take charge in the Gulf as the oil disaster drags into month two. I think it's fairly clear that the administration has no desire to take over what looks more like an impossible problem every day. But the administration might not have much of a choice legally if BP's latest attempt to shut the well fails.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989, amends a portion of the Clean Water Act to not only allow but require the federal government to take over if discharge from a "vessel, offshore facility, or onshore facility" is determined to be "of such a size or character as to be a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States."

"The President shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge or to mitigate or prevent the threat of the discharge," the law states (emphasis mine). One would certainly think that the gulf gusher qualifies as a "threat" at this point.

David Pettit, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has more. Under the National Contingency Plan developed by the EPA in accordance with the Oil Pollution Act, the head of the Department of Homeland Security is directed to appoint a federal incident commander who is charged with carrying out this obligation. DHS head Janet Napolitano has appointed Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who maintained last weekend that he still trusts BP to fix the issue. This is not reassuring in the least.

The federal government wants to keep the blood of this disaster on BP's hands, which is both a political and practical move. But the administration has a legal, if not moral, obligation to do more.

-- Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. For more of her stories, see here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

By Washington Post Editors  |  May 24, 2010; 1:46 PM ET
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yes, and that would be easy and effective and underway if this were a tanker spill, or an offshore spill at a reasonable depth. but it's a mile underwater. what should Obama order? The exact same kind of crew and equipment from... Exxon to come in and try everything BP is trying and failing at? There apparently are no independent blowout fighters like Red Adair who can work at 5000 feet below sea level. And I'm pretty sure the Navy and the Marines have no good ideas or strategies a any better than what's being attempted right now.

For all the critics of the administration's efforts: what exactly should they be doing?

Posted by: andrewlong | May 24, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

The handling of this oil gusher (it isn't a tidy fixed volume "spill") has been disappointing at many levels. Why doesn't the oil industry as a whole have a "swat team" of experts world wide who could be brought in to trouble shoot and solve this problem? Why don't the Feds require that such a group exists and that it be funded by the oil industry (as a prerequisite of being allowed to drill in US waters)? Most communities have a HazMat team for chemical/biological accidents. We should use that concept as a model for handling underwater drilling accidents going forward.

The government seems more interested in fixing blame than actually helping to solve the problem. We'll have ample time to assign blame..right now this hydrocarbon geyser needs to be stopped in some way ASAP.

Posted by: Beagle1 | May 24, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

If this had happened during the Bush administration he would have been villified in the MSM withing days of the oil rig going down for an inadequate response. Here it is going on 2 months, oil is still gushing out of the broken oil well in thousands of gallons per day and washing up on shore up and down the Gulf of Mexico, and Obama has gotten a free pass from the media so far. I guess it helps when the media is an upaid arm of your pary.

Posted by: RobT1 | May 24, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse


I'm sure we'd also hear how Cheney's buddies in Haliburton were complicit as well and now its just a Jon Stewart punchline with muted actual response from the non satirical media.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 24, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Can someone please explain to me what "do more" means? I've heard this rant all morning. The administration needs to "do more" to control the leak. Those who think there is "more" that can be done, should be sending their specific suggestions to BP. Another thing that baffles me is the suggestion that BP is somehow not sufficiently motivated to address this problem. Let's be clear, the brown goo washing ashore is not oil to BP, it's dollar bills...lot's of them. BP has a very strong incentive to stop this leak. Maybe not the same incentive as the rest of us, but BP's interests are certainly better served by stopping this leak as quickly as possible. I'm no apologist for big oil, but I do think some of the commentary floating around is ridiculous. What I do think people should be angry about is how the lack of regulatory oversight led to this accident in the first place. That is one area where the administration should have "done more."

Posted by: mattcrot | May 24, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Do more?
What, like call MacGyver to come and fix the leak?

Posted by: vintagejulie | May 24, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

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