Friday, July 02, 2010

Why is the administration so incompetent on the oil spill?

The Heritage Foundation has a 10-point to-do list of what the administration should be doing to address the clean-up in the Gulf. They range from actions like waiving the Jones Act and relaxing some EPA regulations that are preventing clean-up actions. Paul Rubin talks about some of these proposals today in the WSJ.
First, the Environmental Protection Agency can relax restrictions on the amount of oil in discharged water, currently limited to 15 parts per million. In normal times, this rule sensibly controls the amount of pollution that can be added to relatively clean ocean water. But this is not a normal time.

Various skimmers and tankers (some of them very large) are available that could eliminate most of the oil from seawater, discharging the mostly clean water while storing the oil onboard. While this would clean vast amounts of water efficiently, the EPA is unwilling to grant a temporary waiver of its regulations.

Next, the Obama administration can waive the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from operating in U.S. coastal waters. Many foreign countries (such as the Netherlands and Belgium) have ships and technologies that would greatly advance the cleanup. So far, the U.S. has refused to waive the restrictions of this law and allow these ships to participate in the effort.

The combination of these two regulations is delaying and may even prevent the world's largest skimmer, the Taiwanese owned "A Whale," from deploying. This 10-story high ship can remove almost as much oil in a day as has been removed in total—roughly 500,000 barrels of oily water per day. The tanker is steaming towards the Gulf, hoping it will receive Coast Guard and EPA approval before it arrives.

In addition, the federal government can free American-based skimmers. Of the 2,000 skimmers in the U.S. (not subject to the Jones Act or other restrictions), only 400 have been sent to the Gulf. Federal barriers have kept the others on stations elsewhere in case of other oil spills, despite the magnitude of the current crisis. The Coast Guard and the EPA issued a joint temporary rule suspending the regulation on June 29—more than 70 days after the spill.
The question that Rubin then raises is why is the administration so incompetent. Why aren't they addressing these complaints much faster? Rubin sees three explanations - these people are just incompetent, the administration is more concerned about its supporters such as labor or the environmentalists than the ongoing crisis, or the incompetence is deliberate so that the Obama administration can take advantage of this crisis to pass their desired environmental regulations. I'm not cynical enough to ascribe to the latter proposition. I could believe a combination of the first two reasons plus the fact that the federal government is just so unwieldy that one area doesn't know what the other area is doing. People don't anticipate the roadblocks that the EPA puts up until it all comes to light. And this is where the administration's executive incompetence comes in. They need to be down in the trenches figuring out how the EPA or other agencies are blocking the clean-up and then getting Obama to issue executive orders to speed things up. But that would require him to be much more engaged with the efforts than he seems to be. Yes, the environmental groups might be upset about waiving regulations here and there but they're not going to make a big deal about something that the American people would be so broadly behind - cleaning up the dang oil as fast as possible.