With the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, liberals are busy again blaming the disaster on former President George W. Bush. “Bush’s Katrina,” they said, stands in stark contrast to President Obama’s superior effort to stop the BP oil spill. But as the facts surrounding both disasters make clear, nothing could be further from the truth.
First, the comparison between Bush’s and Obama’s performances is inapt. This fact has a lot to do with federal law. In the case of Katrina, the statute directing response efforts was the 1988 Stafford Act, which puts on-shore states—not the federal government—in charge. Louisiana officials received federal offers of help as Katrina approached, but they were rejected.
After Katrina hit, Louisiana’s front-line responders, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D.) and Ray Nagin (D.), then-mayor of New Orleans, had no serious emergency response plans. As thousands of citizens became stranded and homeless, Blanco and Nagin managed to do one thing, and only one thing, very well: They blamed Bush.
The BP spill is quite different. As explained in a recent Minority Report released by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), on which I serve as ranking member, the federal statute governing the response is the 1990 Oil Pollution Act (OPA), passed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The OPA specifies that, in the event of an offshore oil spill, the President shall ensure effective and immediate removal, mitigation, or prevention of a substantial threat to human health and welfare.
This fact apparently dawned on President Obama long after Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20. As the EPW minority report recounts, it took President Obama nine days to speak to the American people about the event, and he waited 12 days before visiting the gulf first-hand to assess response operations. On June 16, 57 days into the oil spill, President Obama finally hosted a 20-minute, face-to-face meeting with former BP CEO Tony Hayward.
Between April 23 and June 19, however, President Obama found time to play eight rounds of golf, to take two vacations, to attend two rock concerts and a baseball game, and to be a guest on the Jay Leno and George Lopez talk shows.
President Obama’s nonchalance about the spill clearly left local officials confused about who was in charge. And without decisive leadership, the federal bureaucracy was getting in the way. Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser testified on June 10 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee: “I don’t know who is in charge. Is it BP? Is it the Coast Guard? I have spent more time fighting the officials and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil.”
Once he finally understood the gravity of the spill, President Obama compared it to a war, and boldly proclaimed during his June 15 Oval Office address that “We will fight this spill for as long as it takes with everything we’ve got.” He then went on to say of the recovery effort: “If something isn’t working, we want to hear about it. If there are problems in the operation, we will fix them.”
Yet the President’s speeches failed to translate into action. For example, several foreign governments offered to help, including providing, among other things, personnel, containment boom, and oil skimmers. But in many cases the State Department left those offers unanswered, despite the fact that these resources were badly needed.
“It is clear we don’t have the resources we need to protect our coast,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R.) said on May 24. “We need more boom, more skimmers, more vacuums, more jack-up barges that are still in short supply. Let’s be clear: Every day that this oil sits is one more day that more of our marsh dies.”
Foreign Offers Refused
According to a State Department chart documenting the status of foreign offers, as of June 23, the latest date for which such information was publicly available, 25 countries had offered resources to help with oil spill response. The chart, which has since been removed from the State Department website, shows offers began on April 29, and they included skimmers, fire and containment boom, dispersants, sweeping arms, personnel, technical assistance, bird rehabilitation equipment, storage vessels, and high-capacity collectors. Of the approximately 60 separate offers made—many containing multiple resources—more than two months after the spill began, 46 remained “under consideration.”
In addition, not waiving the Jones Act further complicated the Obama Administration’s ability to respond to offers of assistance from foreign countries. The Jones Act, which dates back to 1920, requires that all goods transported in coast-wide trade between United States ports be carried in U.S.-flagged vessels, constructed in the U.S., owned by U.S. citizens and manned by U.S. citizens.
The Jones Act has been waived as part of previous disaster response efforts, including during Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago. However, this time, President Obama refused to issue a Jones Act waiver, even though it clearly was a barrier blocking foreign vessels from helping in the Gulf.
“This is something that should have been done weeks ago,” said my colleague, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Tex.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. “It wasn’t done… If the President would issue an Executive Order, that would do it. But since he hasn’t, and since weeks have passed, I think it’s time for Congress to take the reins and try to do everything that is within our power to mitigate the damage to the gulf.”
President Obama could have issued executive orders to expedite all aspects of the cleanup operation. Yet the only time he did exercise such authority was to create an offshore drilling commission to investigate the causes of the spill. Notably, the commission’s members have no expertise in oil exploration, oil drilling, or petroleum engineering. One such member is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a radical environmental group—and nearly all of the members are openly hostile to offshore drilling.
Presidential leadership was badly needed to pull back bureaucrats who treated the spill as if it were business-as-usual. Take the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which concocted the “Heat Stress Management Plan” for response workers. The plan required, among other things, that “shade must be located within 100 yards of work activity at all times.” Moreover, OSHA’s required that “workers new to working in a hot environment, workers returning after three weeks of cooler weather, or returning after being sick” must “acclimatize by working 10 minutes per hour on days 1 and 2. On days 3 and 4, the work time can be increased to 15 minutes per hour.”
These OSHA rules were strongly opposed by local officials. John Young, councilman-at-large for Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish, stated in testimony before the Senate EPW Committee that OSHA’s rules were an impediment that should have been scrapped. In his view, the “clean-up work force should have been tripled so 60 minutes out of each hour could have been dedicated to clean-up of the coastline, bays, marshes, wetlands and estuaries.”
As the EPW minority report shows, this is one of numerous instances that plagued the response effort—and President Obama clearly failed to take charge and address them. Instead of removing red tape, bureaucracy and onerous regulations, he kept them in place. President Obama treated the BP disaster as if it were business as usual, rather than a crisis of national significance. The result was a federal response effort that was doomed to fail from the very beginning.