Friday, June 18, 2010

EDITORIAL>>Don’t let BP off the hook

While governments and industry wrestle with the insoluble problems created by the cataclysmic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the politics of the worst man-made environmental disaster in history is proving equally insoluble. Thursday, when BP’s chief executive made his dramatic appearance before a congressional committee, was the worst day since the company’s deep-water well exploded, at least for the Republican Party, which has struggled to find a way to make hay with the catastrophe.
Wednesday, President Obama had jawboned BP executives into setting aside $20 billion to pay for the cleanup and for the ruin to the hundreds of thousands of businesses and people whose lives and careers lie in the path of the spreading destruction.
While the president has been castigated in many quarters for being too nice to the multinational giant and its drilling partners, Republican leaders have criticized him for placing so much blame on the company that its profits and viability may be jeopardized.

Before Tony Hayward, the BP CEO, could make his opening excuses, Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, apologized to him for the conduct of the president of the United States. Barton, who has benefited handsomely from political gifts from BP and its subsidiaries and from the oil and gas industry generally ($1.4 million), described President Obama’s negotiations with the company as a “shakedown” and he said he did not want to live in a country where the president would do such a terrible thing to a good business.

Other Republican leaders had been making essentially the same point though less colorfully. Barton’s comments, watched on national TV and instantly blogged around the world, seemed to be a terrible political miscalculation. The House’s Republican leaders, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, summoned Barton and told him that he had to rescind his apology or else they would have to give in to demands that he be removed from his leadership of the energy committee. Barton went back to the hearing room and said that in case anyone misconstrued his remarks, he did not mean that BP shouldn’t pay for the cleanup and for reparations.

But Barton’s problem was that he was too clear and too colorful. The Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative Republicans that includes our own Rep. John Boozman — the Republican nominee for the U. S. Senate in Arkansas — had issued a statement the day that Obama met with the oil executives bashing the president for demanding that the corporation create the escrow fund. Barton had even copied the group’s language. Boozman’s committee said the president had exerted “Chicago-style shakedown politics” and that BP shouldn’t give in. Rush Limbaugh, the broadcaster who is the acknowledged avatar of the Republican Party, said BP shouldn’t create the fund or else it should pass out the money itself rather than let an independent arbiter pay the claims. Limbaugh predicted that Acorn would get the $20 billion. Then Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the hottest Republican on the circuit next to Sarah Palin, said she didn’t like the idea of making BP pay for all the damage because it needed all its cash to drill more wells.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who was in Little Rock early this week plumping for Jim Keet, the former Floridian who moved here last year to run for governor, objected to making BP set aside $20 billion in escrow to pay claims because the company needs the money to drill more offshore wells so that it can reap big profits, which in turn will allow it to pay claims later.

Barbour, the leader of the Republican governors, had compared the oil gushing from the ruptured well to the sheen that appears in the wake of speedboats that tow skiers around the Gulf’s resort beaches. It’s just no big deal. The real harm, Barbour said, is not from the oil leak but from all the publicity about it. It is scaring vacationers away from Mississippi’s beaches at Gulfport and Biloxi. Barbour noted that there have always been tarballs from leaky wells washing up on the shores.

The Republicans seek to make the president’s hardheaded negotiations with the British-based giant a Jeffersonian test of the proper role of a national executive. After all, Congress some years ago fixed a ceiling, $75 million, on an oil company’s liability for all the harm that it might cause. Republicans so far have blocked efforts to raise that ceiling. Did the founders anticipate a president using his office as a bully pulpit to force a corporation to change its behavior, even if it is in the national interest?
We know that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would never do it. (It was Cheney’s company, Halliburton, that cemented the well just before it blew.)

Obama is acting like Harry Truman, both Roosevelts and John F. Kennedy, who used the prestige of the their office to force industries to act in the national interest. He is in rather better company.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.