So a law professor, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and an oil executive walk into a bar…Stop me if you’ve heard this one. It’s the story of President Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Big Oil.
On Friday, a host on CNBC and a senior White House official personally reminded me that President Obama consulted with numerous advisers before deciding on his response to the oil spill. These advisers included oil company executives, leaders of environmental agencies, and many scientists—including the Nobel laureate, Dr. Chu.
It would be far better for our president to pick up the red phone and call Vladimir Putin for a lesson on ninjapolitik than to leave BP in charge of the ineffectual plans that it’s bringing to the table.
It was important to bring the environmental agencies to the table so that the White House could mitigate this ecological Chernobyl with a strong, coordinated effort.
It was smart to bring the Secretary of Energy to the table for political and regulatory reasons.
It was right to bring the oil companies to the table, too, because the U.S. government does not possess the oil-related equipment and expertise that countries like Venezuela and Brazil control within their nationalized deep-water oil industries.
But there was one person missing from this A-list of extraordinary advisors: Joe the Plumber. Where was the pragmatic, no-nonsense blue-blooded American who could look President Obama and Chu in the eye and tell them to stop over-thinking this underwater plumbing problem, and furthermore, not to trust BP? Would you send a lawyer and a physicist to fix your plumbing? And would you trust an oil company executive to give you a fair deal?
We should have demolished this well with explosives over a month ago. And yet we watch in excruciating suspense while BP fumbles through plan after plan to recover its oil and cover its asset.
The president has set up an independent commission for investigating the accident before the spill is even stopped. How can we be so far-sighted as to miss the obvious things right before us? Establishing a commission before stopping the spill is like calling an attorney to file a lawsuit the moment after being run over by a truck.
• Big Fat Story: Plug the Spill, Already!• Reihan Salam: Who Needs an Oil Spill Czar?• Tunku Varadarajan: Can the Oil Spill Save Washington?The oil companies stood together and advised President Obama that BP’s plans for the crisis response were the best of all available options. If this sounds kosher to you, then please contact me and I’ll sell you a bridge in Brooklyn at a very special price. Historically, oil companies are remarkably consistent in supporting each other when the industry is threatened by political forces and a popular backlash. Only on rare occasions are there exceptions to the lock-step unity of petrol power. For example, in the 1950’s, an Italian oil executive named Enrico Mattei broke ranks and decided to undercut the deals that other oil companies enjoyed throughout the Middle East. When Mattei offered his host countries a 50/50 split on the revenues, the oil industry erupted in anger. The 50/50 deals had broad normative appeal that paved the way for other oil-rich countries to demand equal treatment. But fairness can have consequences in a den of thieves; poor Enrico was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1962. One doesn’t need to be a Nobel laureate to do that math.
The problem with this BP spill response is that President Obama asked the oil companies for their advice instead of ordering them what to do to stop the spill. BP’s response would not look the same if President Obama threatened to nationalize their assets and take charge of the situation. I know that the Bush administration gave aggression a bad name, but sometimes it’s ok to be aggressive. It was a mistake for President Obama to construct a team of advisers so intelligent and accomplished, yet so green with casualty response and so susceptible to oil company coercion. It would be far better for our president to pick up the red phone and call Vladimir Putin for a lesson on ninjapolitik than to leave BP in charge of the ineffectual plans that it’s bringing to the table.
The opportunity is slipping away for President Obama to stop the spill quickly and heroically with a controlled demolition. Let’s take note and try to get this right in the days ahead and the next time a crisis hits.
Christopher Brownfield is a former nuclear submarine officer, an Iraq veteran, and a visiting scholar on nuclear policy at Columbia University. He is the author of My Nuclear Family , to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in September.