President Barack Obama has prevented the BP oil spill from becoming his own Katrina-like nightmare so far, but the political and policy consequences of the disaster are likely to increase as the oil spreads. By repeatedly assigning blame to energy giant BP Plc and focusing ire on the government agency responsible for regulating offshore drilling, Obama has deflected criticism that his administration was sluggish in its initial response to the Gulf of Mexico spill.
That may not last. A month since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, killing 11 people and leaving a ruptured well that has been leaking crude ever since, the feared environmental catastrophe is becoming more and more real. Heavy oil is hitting Louisiana’s wetlands. Oil-stained animals are being rescued and cleaned. Gulf Coast economies are suffering and preparing for drawn-out damage.
Analysts say as the ecological crisis gains traction, voters will punish the president regardless of who is responsible — an important consideration for Obama ahead of congressional elections in November.
“There is a strong tendency for the public to penalize incumbents even for natural disasters if there is a plausible governmental angle — regardless of whether the government failed to respond adequately,” said Eric Schickler, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkley. “If the oil spill has a significant impact on the Gulf Coast economy — and as a result, on the U.S. economy as a whole — it is likely to impose at least some damage on the president and his party.”
Obama’s Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, are expected to lose seats in the election and want to avoid shifting power to Republicans, who would make it more difficult for the president to achieve his policy goals.
Obama is aware of the government angle in the crisis and has made his displeasure with the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the Interior Department agency that regulates offshore drilling, very clear. That agency is now being restructured, but other policy consequences loom, most notably the president’s efforts to pass energy legislation that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase domestic production of renewable fuels and — tricky under current circumstances — expand offshore drilling.
John Leshy, who served as general counsel for the Interior Department in the Clinton administration, said the spill could hurt Obama’s short-term prospects for an energy overhaul. “Clearly the spill has dramatized the cost of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas, particularly oil. So to that extent it has, I think, boosted the idea that there needs to be energy reform,” said Leshy, now a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “But in the short term you have to get 60 votes in the Senate,” he said. “I think the spill has made that harder.”
An energy bill introduced by Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Senator Joe Lieberman is languishing in the 100-member legislative body. The offshore drilling provisions were meant to attract Republican support for the bill. Obama’s action plan for advancing that energy law is not clear, but his strategy for dealing with the oil spill has been to act fast.
All eyes are now on Washington to take swift legislative measures to prevent these accidents from happening in the future; and there may be no greater solution than enacting strong clean energy legislation that would finally shift the US away from oil and toward renewable sources of energy.