Two Last Comments on the Energy Speech

I'll lay off after this. Previously here, here, and here. Now, two reader replies. First, a claim that the Administration has hurt itself by not emphasizing from the start how dire, even hopeless, the situation in the Gulf really is. Then after the jump, an argument that it is phony to compare (as I have done several times) the post-Sputnik science-and-tech drive, under Eisenhower and Kennedy, with a post-BP effort to change energy policy.

Bruce Johnson, of Florida, writes:

While [the Sputnik-style effort] (and the "Carter test") are ultimately the paramount concerns, I remain troubled mainly by the ongoing political reactions to the spill. It could eventually compromise the administration's whole agenda by weakening Obama politically.

Maybe I've missed something in the MSM, but it seems to me that the Obama administration made a key strategic communications error once the scale of the oil spill disaster emerged. This initial error, I believe, underpins much/most of the criticism that's being directed at Obama. And it can be remedied by getting people to re-focus on one glaring reality: once the well blew out, 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface, there was absolutely nothing that anyone could do to rapidly plug the well. That is a simple, unfortunate truth. The public, and the President's critics, base their critical arguments on the assumption that a) the federal response could have been better, and b) a better response would have plugged the well sooner.

IMHO, here is what Obama should have been communicating within days of the Deep Horizon sinking (italics denote the money quote):

"This is a very serious environmental situation, and potentially disastrous. These deep offshore wells are drilled at the very limits of our current technology, and there is no precedent for this kind of oil spill. Frankly, containing it in shallow water would be a tremendous technological challenge, all the more so at 5,000 feet below the ocean surface. We are responding rapidly, carefully, and relentlessly, guided by the best petroleum engineering experts from BP, the oil industry, academia, and government."

"However, let's be absolutely clear: this well lies so deep, and is subject to such extreme temperatures and pressures, that even the very best minds and technologies may not be able to stop this oil spill for weeks or even months. Let me repeat: this disaster is testing the limits of our technology, and even the very best minds and technologies may not be able to stop this oil spill for weeks or even months.
This oil spill represents the stark regulatory failure that resulted from at least a decade of lax regulation of offshore drilling, a situation I am determined to fix. And we should not be authorizing any deep-water oil drilling unless and until we have proven technologies in place and ready at a moment's notice, for stopping even the worst deep-water accidents." (Note: this paragraph should have been repeated like a mantra for several weeks.)

Maybe this has been said elsewhere, and maybe it's a mundane point. However, it seems to me that criticism of the federal response is predicated on the assumption that a "quick fix" actually existed, and that the feds have somehow underestimated the problem and/or responded with bureaucratic sluggishness. The truth should be told: as soon as the Deepwater Horizon went down, the gaping hole in deep offshore contingency planning was revealed as a paper tiger. The oil industry, and the federal government were left to improvise as the Gulf choked on oil. Obama should be judged on how well he mobilized federal actions, not on the fundamental physics and technological issues inherent in plugging a deep-water oil well.

Now, a reader in the Midwest with the "this is not Sputnik" view:

Sputnik was a blow to the stomach. The oil spill is an on-going disaster that is destroying lives, livelihoods and nature. Obama would be a fool to focus on grand programs and legislative initiatives in his speech. He would have been accused of 'politicalizing' the oil spill.

If Obama has done anything, he has asked Americans to reflect on the "deep problems of political culture." This was not the speech to do it again! The oil spill is a continuing and immediate crisis. The President needs to show leadership and action, not reflection analysis as his race and Cairo speeches did....

America's race to develop the atom bomb, as well as the Sputnik humiliation, challenged US science and technology dominance. They were singular events. Energy policy is far more complicated politically. You seem to discount that historians will look back and recognize a a sea-change in energy policy under Obama. [Actually, I said that I hoped that historians would see signs of a big change as of now, but couldn't be sure yet.]....

The appointment of Dr. Chu as Energy Secretary, a Nobel scientist and proven executive, puts him in charge of hundreds of millions of R&D grants that he is now able to steer towards new energy and conservation technologies. Alternative energy enthusiasts believe a carbon tax will help spur new energy technologies. They ignore that the Obama Administration is already doing that and institutionalizing that priority within the Energy Department. They don't understand institutional power.

Presidents need to chose their battles wisely. It seems to me Obama has judged 'cap and trade' as DOA. He favors stepping up R&D technology, the same priority that landed a man on the moon. But the politics of energy policy is not the same as the politics of uniting the country on the Manhattan Project or the race to the moon.

Fair enough about the differences between a concerted project, like going to the Moon, and the mammoth technological, economic, and political challenge involved in shifting a whole economy's reliance on one kind of fuel. What I am mainly talking about is the sense of political/national urgency. These kinds of large-scale shifts are not impossible, even on issues as vexed as energy policy. Japan radically transformed the energy basis of its economy after the first "oil shocks" of the early 1970s. Jimmy Carter kicked off efficiency and alternative-energy projects whose benefits lasted long after he was gone. I was talking about this speech as a speech, as a political marker. Judged that way, I thought it was a missed opportunity. Naturally I hope it proves to be a lagging rather than a representative indicator of the Administration's larger progress.