Globe Editorial

Obama should take charge of cleanup in the Gulf

May 26, 2010

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MORE THAN a month after BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, oil is washing up in ugly clumps on beaches and wetlands, coating birds and other marine wildlife with a deadly slick. Just as pelicans and sea turtles are caught in an oily grasp, so is President Obama. Out of political caution, he and his team are framing this huge environmental disaster as BP’s problem, even though it is clear BP doesn’t know how to solve it and hasn’t been honest about its scope.

Despite his reluctance to relieve BP of responsibility, Obama should realize that a crisis of this magnitude should have the government firmly in charge of the cleanup, even if it must leverage the expertise of the private oil industry to find a way to cap the gushing well.

BP’s latest plan is to try a procedure known as a “top kill.’’ It involves shooting heavy mud into the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf, and then directing cement at the well to permanently stop the oil, which is flowing at a rate of 5,000 to 20,000 barrels a day. It might work. But if not, the government — and not BP — should determine the next move.

Plan B should mean more than blaming the Bush administration, or Republicans in general. It’s true that the GOP has blocked efforts to raise the liability for oil spills. But the exemptions from environmental regulations that were granted to BP happened on Obama’s watch, and are still occurring.

It’s appalling that the federal government, under any administration, would allow drilling deep underwater without making adequate preparations for a massive oil leak. But that’s what happened. After the oil spill, Obama announced a moratorium on permits for drilling new wells and said that he is stopping the type of waivers that BP was able to obtain. But, as The New York Times has reported, at least seven new permits for various type of drilling and five environmental waivers have been granted since then. That is an insult to those harmed by the disaster unfolding on the Gulf Coast.

In the long run, the nation needs to move toward alternative energy sources. In the meantime, the crisis demands more than a special commission to review the specifics of what happened on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Above all, it calls for leadership on behalf of the public interest. That is Obama’s job.

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