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The Spill, The Scandal and the President

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The failure of the Obama administration to crack down on BP – and to tackle the crisis with the full force of the federal government – is likely to haunt the Gulf Coast for decades to come. Oil continues to lap up onshore in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Pelican rookeries are fouled, their eggs and nests soaked in oil. The region's fisheries – some of the richest in the world – are imperiled; anglers and shrimpers have been barred from more than a third of the Gulf's waters, which may never fully recover from the toxic stew of crude and chemical dispersant now twisting in its depths. The region's beaches are empty, and tourist towns are dying. Administration officials now admit that the oil may continue to gush into the Gulf until August, when relief wells are finally in place.

Both the government and BP have reasons to downplay the extent of the spill. For BP, the motive is financial: Under the Clean Water Act, the company could owe fines of as much as $4,300 for every barrel spilled, in addition to royalties for the oil it is squandering. For the Obama administration, the disaster threatens to derail the president's plan to expand offshore drilling. "It's crystal clear what the federal response to the tragedy ought to be," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on environmental health. "Bring a dangerous offshore drilling pursuit to an end."

The administration, however, has made clear that it has no intention of reversing its plan to expand offshore drilling. Four weeks into the BP disaster, when Salazar was questioned in a Senate hearing about the future of the president's plan, he was happy to stand up for the industry's desire to drill at any cost. "Isn't it true," asked Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, "that as terrible as the tragedy is, that unless we want $14, $16, $18, $20-a-gallon gasoline, that it's not realistic to think that we would actually stop drilling for oil in the Gulf?" Unbowed by the catastrophe that was still unfolding on his watch, Salazar heartily agreed, testifying that the president had directed him to "move forward" on offshore drilling.

That may help explain why the administration has gone to unusual lengths to contain the spill's political fallout. On May 14th, two days after the first video of the gusher was released, the government allowed BP to apply a toxic dispersant that is banned in England at the source of the leak – an unprecedented practice in the deep ocean. "The effort should be in recovering the oil, not making it more difficult to recover by dispersing it," says Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer and former NOAA chief scientist who helped the agency confront the world's worst-ever oil spill in the Persian Gulf after the first Iraq War. The chemical assault appeared geared, she says, "to improving the appearance of the problem rather than solving the problem."

Critics of the administration's drilling plans fear that the president's decision to postpone drilling in the Arctic and appoint a commission to investigate the BP spill are merely stalling tactics, designed to blunt public anger about the disaster. "The way the PR is spinning is once that spill is plugged, then people declare victory," says Rep. Grijalva. "The commission stalls it long enough where the memory of the American people starts to fade a little bit on the issue. After that, we're back to where we were."  

President Obama pushed to expand offshore drilling, in part, to win votes for climate legislation, which remains blocked in the Senate. The political calculus is understandable – the risk of an oil spill weighed against the far greater threat posed by global warming – but in the end, he may have succeeded only in compounding one environmental catastrophe with another. Even if the climate bill is eventually approved, the disaster in the Gulf will serve as a lasting and ugly reminder of the price we paid for our addiction to oil. "It was a bargain with the devil," says Steiner, the marine scientist who helped lead the response to the Valdez disaster. "And now the devil is gloating."

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