Maybe Obama Should Be 'Doing Something' About the BP Spill


Like many of you, I've been (privately) making fun of the strain of thought that Barack Obama is a Bad President because he isn't Doing Something!!!! About the BP Oil Spill!  I've been laughing even harder at those who acknowledge that he maybe can't personally pilot a top secret experimental navy sub down to the well and close it himself (a la Bill Pullman in Independence Day), but castigate him anyway for not showing us that he "gets it"--it being the scope of the disaster, the deep moral seriousness of the crisis.  Presumably, this would all be much easier to take if the president were openly panicking.  Or something.  The Care Bear Stare Model of American Politics once again rears its ugly head.

However, a friend writes that there might be something the President could and should do:

My father, who has worked in the petrochemical industry for decades, tells me that there is a well-established method for dealing with a problem like this:  blowing up the well.  It's been done before, successfully.  So why isn't this option being actively considered, despite the failure of every method tried so far?  Because when a well is blown up, it can't ever be used again.  As a result, BP stands to lose a lot from doing so.  And they probably won't have to pay for all the harm done by the oil spill.  (Did you know the Exxon Valdez legal case just ended recently, after Exxon fought to keep every penny it could for years on end?) 

So in a case like this, it seems like there's a good argument for the president stepping in.  BP has a poor incentive to do the right thing here.  Now, it might be true -- as Obama has said -- that the government lacks the expertise and equipment to cap a well.  But (a) capping a well and blowing it up aren't the same thing, and (b) if blowing it up requires expertise the government lacks, they could just hire the experts from (say) other oil companies.

As for whether the government has the authority to step in, I think the answer is yes.  There is an *ongoing* threat to property throughout the Gulf region, and the protection of property is well within what I consider proper government action.  Also, the seabed is not owned by BP -- it's property of the government, leased out to BP (or so I understand). 

As I told my father, I don't know enough about the risks of exploding a well to know for sure that it's the best decision.  For all I know, there's a chance it would make the problem even worse.  But it doesn't seem like BP's incentives are properly aligned for them to give it the proper consideration. 

Unlike many in the blogosphere, I did not have enough boxtops to get my Petrochemical Marine Engineer Secret Decoder Ring, so I cannot weigh in on whether or not this is a good idea. 

But if it is an idea that should be on the table, then I quite agree that the President--or rather, experts in his administration--should step in and make that decision.  I'm pretty fond of America's modern, fossil-fuel based economy, but I'm pretty sure it can survive the loss of one well.  BP is undoubtedly willing to cost the rest of the country a near infinite sum to preserve its future profits. But in a case like this, with an enormous and crystal-clear negative externality being imposed on the rest of the country (and a large swathe of marine life), they shouldn't have the power to make that decision.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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