The Risks of Demonizing Drilling

In the five weeks since the Deepwater Horizon disaster began, troubling questions have been raised about the accident's causes and consequences. Most Americans just want to know whether the spill can be stopped. In Washington, however, there is almost equal interest in another issue: Who will be blamed?

The politics of the moment are almost as complex as the engineering issues. Obviously attuned to the potential political peril--"Obama's Katrina!"--the president and his cabinet have talked tough about British Petroleum's responsibility for the spill, with Secretary Salazar famously boasting that his boot was "on BP's neck." More recently, White House aides let it be known that the exasperated president had ordered them to just "Plug the damn hole!"

While his aides might assume that anecdote made the president seem decisive, the danger is that he instead appears impotent--which, in fact, the government seems to be. BP is working around the clock to stop the spill, assisted by an army of advisers from both the public and private sectors, and despite frustrated calls for the federal government to take over the spill response, there is not much evidence that doing so would improve the prospects for success.

Despite frustrated calls for the federal government to take over the spill response, there is not much evidence that doing so would improve the prospects for success.

There is a delicate dynamic at work here: While the president can protect himself somewhat by blaming BP, for many Americans, the buck still stops on his desk. It is the government's job to ensure such activities are done safely--and, if necessary, to stop a spill when one occurs. So the administration's understandable instinct to blame BP stands in tension with its obligations to the American people and its desire to project an image of competence and accountability.

Americans aren't giving Obama high marks for his handling of the spill--just 35 percent approval, according to a CBS News poll released on Tuesday--but that's still better than BP's 18 percent approval for its actions. Public support for expanded offshore drilling has also slipped significantly in recent polls; Americans are following this story very closely, and the reports of misjudgment and possible misconduct that caused this calamity are deeply disturbing.

The president must juggle competing concerns: He can correctly point to mounting evidence that both BP and Transocean cut crucial corners in their haste to finish this well, but he cannot succumb to the natural temptation to demonize drilling if he wants to preserve the opportunity for bipartisan climate and energy legislation.

Just on Tuesday, the president finally bowed to environmentalists' insistence that he use the spill to campaign for clean energy. It was a somewhat awkward mixing of messages, however; the solar panels the president touted won't displace deepwater drilling.

There are two things the president must do in the coming days to increase public confidence in his administration's response to this crisis. Much greater attention must be paid to efforts to remediate the spill's effects, protect critical coastal marshlands, and help affected communities recover.

State and local officials are increasingly frustrated with the federal response to date; that needs to change. Americans might understand that the government isn't capable of capping the well, but they do expect an effective emergency response to an environmental disaster.

In the long run, the administration will need to think carefully about both the causes of the spill and the capabilities of the government to respond to such disasters. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 entrusted the federal government with the responsibility for preventing or stopping such spills; clearly, more serious attention must be paid to what resources are needed to reliably meet those obligations in the future.

Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow at AEI and the codirector of the AEI Geoengineering Project.

Photo credit: Flickr user arbyreed/Creative Commons

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


  • Samuel Thernstrom has studied and written about environmental issues for twenty years, with a particular emphasis on global climate change. He served on the White House Council on Environmental Quality prior to joining AEI in 2003. As codirector of the AEI Geoengineering Project, Mr. Thernstrom studied the policy implications of geoengineering, or climate engineering. This groundbreaking field of climate science involves changing features of the earth's environment to offset the warming effect of greenhouse gases. He has been published on and in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and he has appeared on BBC News, ABC News, CNN, FOX News, NPR, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

What's new on AEI

Love people, not pleasure
image Oval Office lacks resolve on Ukraine
image Middle East Morass: A public opinion rundown of Iraq, Iran, and more
image Verizon's Inspire Her Mind ad and the facts they didn't tell you
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.