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Obama’s Oily Waterloo

President Obama's handling of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico can be aptly described, in the words of the great Yogi Berra, as "déjà vu all over again". After nearly two months of dilly-dallying, Obama finally got the deservedly reviled BP CEO Tony Hayward to the White House where he extracted some kind of a commitment-over-time for a $20 billion dollar escrow fund. Republicans cried foul, Democrats praised the president's fortitude.

So it has been with the president's handling of the nation's economic woes. Obama inherited a horrible situation with a collapsing American banking system, with job loss and home foreclosure at record levels. But just as he did with the problem of regulating the oil giants, the ever-conciliatory president "stayed the course." Instead of looking for new leadership to right the ship, the president installed Clinton retreads and Wall Street insiders-Summers, Geithner, Bernanke-in other words, the guys who got us into the mess in the first place. Eighteen months later, the economy remains stagnant and the same hacks remain in place.

Meanwhile, the gusher in the Gulf keeps getting worse with no end in sight. As one oil industry whistle-blower recently summed up the situation, "It's a race now...a race to drill the relief wells and take our last chance at killing this monster before the whole weakened, worn out, blown out, leaking and failing system gives up it's last gasp in a horrific crescendo."

Everyone knew when the guard changed in January of 2009 that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) was a den of thieves and worse. So did the new president clean it up, bring in fresh faces with a determination to protect the country from the vicious profiteering that defines Big Oil? Did he heed his Democratic Party colleagues who had harangued Bush/Cheney for eight years for being too cozy with the industry? Not exactly. Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss!

Obama brought in Ken Salazar, a wealthy Coloradan known for defending western landscapes but a man who never met an offshore oil proposal he didn't like. Instead of a swift broom, he brought a silk handkerchief to the MMS. "Stop the whoring and drugs," he warned, "but keep dishing out those environmental exemptions!" The authors of this piece could care less who is screwing whom, but we would prefer it if oil companies were forced to comply with reasonable safety regulations. Why is it that the United States goes easier on oil companies than any country outside of the continent of Africa? Answer: the US functions in many ways like a Third World country, subservient to the dictates of corporate power.

We'd like to suggest a few changes, not that we think they will happen but because people should know that there are things that could be done save the "political will" to do them. As former Clintonite Robert Reich has suggested, BP could, by executive order, be placed into receivership in recognition of the fact that $20 billion is just an oily drop in the bucket compared to what it will take to repair the immeasurable damage that has been done to what was one of the richest and most diverse places for marine life on the planet. Not to mention all the lives and livelihoods destroyed for decades to come. A $235 billion company, fourth largest in the world, BP can and should be forced to pony up much, much more.

Many have pointed out the looming dangers if the US government doesn't move quickly in this regard. BP, like the other oil giants, holds significant sway in the federal courts of the states in which it operates. It isn't hard at all to imagine the company being allowed to split off its US operations, declare bankruptcy, and leave only crumbs behind to address the damage caused by its criminal negligence.

Tyler Slocum of Public Citizen has called for revoking the contract that BP was awarded by the Pentagon to deliver $2 billion in fuel to the Air Force. This should be a no-brainer. The federal government must stop contracting with lawless, corrupt corporations. Now.

President Obama could throw BP off the bridge and install the Northern Command/US Navy to take lead the disaster response. As Reich opines, "It is simply impermissible to have...the operation that is trying to plug the hole at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico...under the direct control of the same company whose recklessness and negligence have generated all of this, a company that has a history of cutting corners." What part of this doesn't the president understand?

With BP in charge, over a million gallons of the dispersant Corexit has been sprayed into the Gulf in what appears to be an out of sight, out of mind strategy. What the public isn't told is that the active ingredient in Corexit is a neurotoxin pesticide that is acutely toxic to both human and aquatic life, causes cancer, causes damage to internal organs such as the liver and kidneys simply by absorbing it through the skin and may cause reproductive side effects.

After hundreds of reported illnesses, the EPA instructed BP to cease using Corexit. BP simply refused. Obviously, the fox is guarding the hen house in the most intolerable circumstances imaginable.

We understand that President Obama is operating in a hostile political environment. We understand that he inherited enormous problems across the board. We even sympathize with the argument that he may be a "chess player" with an invisible, but long- range strategy to checkmate his adversaries. But "may be" isn't enough when we just don't see much achievement of significance. Not only is the president falling far short of the progressive ideals he once espoused, he has shown time and again-the ongoing "war on terror", the public option debacle and the current banking reform effort come to mind-that he is not above deceiving the very people who worked so hard to put him in office.

The current situation even brings to mind the question of whether this job-president of the United States-isn't itself part of the problem. In the wake of such continuing dysfunction, regardless of the man or party in charge, might it not be time to seriously re-think the very structure of our system of governance?

Lewis Seiler

Lewis Seiler is president of Voice of the Environment.

Dan Hamburg

Dan Hamburg, a former US congressman from California, is executive director of Voice of the Environment..

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