Mr. Obama steps up on oil spill response

Friday, May 28, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA put a welcome end Thursday to some of the unattractive finger-pointing and responsibility-dodging of recent weeks with respect to the disastrous BP oil spill. His administration until now had painted a murky picture of lines of authority and responsibility.

Was BP organizing the response to the leak? If the government was already in charge, why did Interior Secretary Ken Salazar insist that the government might yet push BP out of the way? Did the government need the oil company's expertise? Was the whole thing the fault of the previous administration?

Mr. Obama cleared that all away: "From the moment this disaster began," he said, "the federal government has been in charge of the response effort." He noted that federal law prescribes the organization of the response: As the responsible party, BP is conducting operations to cap the well and paying contractors that specialize in oil-spill cleanup, but all at federal direction. "Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance."

The president stepped back from the boot-on-the-neck-of-BP rage. "I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down." He was honest about the scope of the challenge the government faces. "There is going to be damage that is heartbreaking to see." And, he acknowledged, "There are going to be places where things fall short." He repeated, accurately, that the problem of regulator-industry coziness predated his tenure and had been somewhat improved by Mr. Salazar, but he also admitted that his administration had not done enough before the spill to cure that problem. As oil continues to lap ashore and cleanup begins in earnest, the president has made clear that Americans can hold him accountable for the effectiveness of that effort, no matter how difficult the task or how fraught the politics.

Perhaps most important: Mr. Obama also argued that this disaster should remind Americans of the many costs of the nation's addiction to fossil fuels, underscoring the need for sensible, comprehensive climate and energy legislation. He pointed out that Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) have assembled a bill that deserves a bipartisan hearing this year. That is the long view America's leaders must see, and soon, if the country is ever to end its dependence on the sticky, black film threatening the Gulf Coast.

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