On June 11 Obama linked the BP oil blowout to the attacks of September 11, 2001. He made the parallel in terms of impact on the American psyche and of the spur to chart new policies. There are less flattering ways—to Obama personally—to compare the events. Few performances in George W. Bush’s wretched tenure aroused more derision than his conduct when he was alerted to the first attack on the Twin Towers, continuing to confer with the children in that Florida classroom.
Bush didn’t want to scare the children, a laudable instinct. Obama, less laudably, didn’t want to upset the grown-ups. Within hours of the explosion, NOAA scientists and federal officials were preparing for "the spill of the decade," with worst-case assessments of 110,000 barrels a day. But the White House, in collusion with BP, successfully capped the outflow of disturbingly high estimates, lowballing it at 1,000 barrels a day, then crawling reluctantly up to 5,000.
In his nerveless speech from the Oval Office on June 15, where he made the extraordinary claim that "in the coming weeks and days, [BP’s] efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well," Obama reached for the traditional buck-pass of a blue-ribbon commission to assess the circumstances leading up to the April 20 explosion. It will be interesting to see just how diligently this commission excavates the incredible government indulgence toward the oil companies on ocean drilling. It could take off from the Clinton administration’s Deep Water Royalty Relief Act of 1995, a bill encouraging oil companies like BP to start drilling for oil 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. When Ken Salazar was still a Colorado senator, he berated the Bush administration for its slothfulness in pushing forward with deep-sea drilling in the gulf.
In the first year of the Obama administration, Salazar’s Interior Department put 53 million acres of offshore oil reserves up for lease, far eclipsing the records set by the Bush administration. As Jeffrey St. Clair describes in our CounterPunch newsletter, Salazar was adamant in retaining Chris Oynes as associate director of offshore drilling at the Minerals Management Service. As St. Clair explains, an outraged inspector general of the Interior Department discovered that on Oynes’s watch "the repeat offenders in the oil industry were allowed to police themselves, writing their own environmental analyses, safety inspections and compliance reports, often in pencil for MMS regulators to trace over in ink."
By the time Obama declared on March 31 that "we’ve still got to make some tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines," his administration had given the green light to BP’s Deepwater Horizon well, giving this notoriously criminal company—a big contributor to the Obama 2008 campaign—a pat on the back for its safety record.