Pres. Obama’s oil spill speech should have been about governance.

Everyone is all, wah wah wah, Pres. Obama didn’t mention climate change in his address on the BP oil spill.  He talked about feel good stuff, like clean energy technology, but he didn’t talk about pricing carbon, the costs of climate change, or instituting cap and trade.  That bothered me too, but if he wasn’t going to mention climate change, I would have liked to see him give another speech.  He could have told a powerful story about governance.

We’ve been subjected to almost three decades of Norquistian complaints that governments don’t work well, can’t produce anything, and hinder real enterprise.  Those regulators making real people jump through endless hoops to produce stacks of paper, all those pointless plans.  But Pres. Obama could have told a very clear morality tale about what happens when those agencies are co-opted, or overruled.  Sadly, we have too many recent examples, like Cheney’s fish kill in the Klamath.  He could have drawn a straight line from the concept that governance is pointless and an impediment to business to allowing the Minerals Management Service to run amok.   The glamorous part of that story is that regulators were partying, literally sleeping with and doing coke, with the oil companies they were regulating.  That’s dramatic and unethical.  But the part that turned out to be a real problem when the Deepwater Horizon fell apart is that the hadn’t done what bureaucrats are paid to do.  The Minerals Management Service hadn’t demanded rigorous Emergency Plans from the oil companies.  By all accounts, they approved farcical plans with nice covers, and that turned out to be a tragic mistake for everyone who lives in the Gulf.

Water districts pushed back hard when we required Management Plans from them.  They didn’t want to go to the expense of gathering the data they had sort-of kept and that one guy knew real well but didn’t write down.  They certainly didn’t want to tell Reclamation or DWR that data.   A couple submitted good, thorough plans that they intended to use themselves.  A bunch submitted plans that met the bare minimum; they never intended to make that plan into a working document for themselves.  A few submitted intentionally rude plans, with no information and a fuck-you attitude.  They didn’t want to write a plan and were pissed.  A good plan takes effort, perhaps a year of someone’s time and hopefully some public input.  They seem like some dumb hurdle, until something goes wrong.  When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, how much do you think the BP executives wished they had an effective emergency plan, one that told them where all the ships and booms on the east coast were.  In this last drought, districts flocked, a hundred people at a time, to our workshops on drought.  Time after time, we asked them, what does your Shortage Contingency Plan say you will do?  The answer?  They didn’t have a decent Shortage Contingency Plan.  Could we tell them what it should say?

If President Obama was going to back away from a speech about averting world-scaled human catastrophe within the next century, if he was going to back away from an environmentally -themed speech, he could at least have given a progressive speech.  He could have pointed, very directly and step by step, to the consequences of bad governance.  He could have challenged the narrative that government is only a burden.  He could have shown where good governance would have made an incredible difference.  It is hard to see when governance goes right, because deepwater oil rigs are never permitted, and if they are, they have the safeguards they need, and then if something goes wrong, it is contained.

My liberal friends are so thoroughly disheartened by Pres. Obama.  Some feel that his moderation will lead him to maintain the wealth inequities that grew over the Bush years.  Others point to the bailout that supported big banks rather than disassembling them.  There’s no excuse for Pres. Obama’s record on civil rights and privacy.  But.  I’ve been watching the agencies, because I’m a bureaucrat.  What I’ve seen in the agencies is a return to science, a return to regulating pollutants and upholding  labor laws.  Suddenly, the federal agencies are involved in our state processes again, and we’re glad to have them back.  There’s been a void for almost a decade.  Not many people talk about this, but the executive branch of the federal government is coming back to life under Pres. Obama.  Maybe he wants to keep it on the DL.  But as a civil servant, I wish he’d connected the oil spill to the way the agencies have been starved and abused, and told the stories of how agencies can and do make people’s lives better.

I wouldn’t normally say this in addition to linking, but a few of those links are very good.  They’re worth following.

Gladwell’s story on how regulatory standards on electrical equipment would have saved lived in the Chicago heat wave is my favorite of his works.

This picture is striking, showing how the same consultant wrote all the emergency plans for the oil companies in the Gulf.  Crappy plans, at that, suggesting that fish should swim away from any spills.

If you haven’t read how Cheney brought death to the Klamath, you should.

I would utterly love to go to Booming School.  Language!  I’m shocked and appalled that a lady could say those things.


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5 responses to “Pres. Obama’s oil spill speech should have been about governance.

  1. Pete

    As always, you write beautifully.

    One thing I’d like to hear your thoughts on is the Republican critique that government can’t work. The rub is that they’re half right – if they appoint people who don’t want government to work, it won’t. So how do you do complex policy that works regardless of who’s implementing it?

  2. Not only that, but how do you find people interested in public service… service being the operative word in the job description. The issue is not simply finding people that believe that government can work, but finding people who believe that government should work for the people who both supply it with funds and depend on it.

    Friends who’ve worked in the Bureau for several years have commented on the changes in management, attitude, and focus on actual mandates since the change in administration. It’s real, and this change should work its way up the chain – why doesn’t it? I believe sincerely that it begins with us demanding that of our government. Even – gasp! – our water agencies! The reason they don’t produce useful documents (and many times they don’t – I worked for one!) is because the public is not involved enough, rarely even visiting a website now and then, for Boards to care.

    I believe that policy will always depend on who’s implementing it and, in the end, who’s watching it being implemented.

  3. Yes, Obama missed a chance to talk about governance. But what about the heads of the other major oil companies testifying in Congress that BP did things that they never would have done, instead of saying “there but for the grace of God go I”?

    That Congress hasn’t extracted out of the oil industry a $1B commitment to developing and building several Swiss Army-like piloted, submersible craft that, for example, could make a fracking simple clean cut on a pipe a mile below, or deal with any one of a number of highly predictable failure scenarios is, in my mind, a much greater symptom of the legacy of an emasculated governance system than was Obama’s missed opportunity.

  4. TallChris

    I love you sweetie, and your F###–g Booming School!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. So how do you do complex policy that works regardless of who’s implementing it?

    I doubt that’s possible — no matter how good the policy is, some people will ignore it. I’d rather say, how do we tell if our policy is doing what we wanted it to, and if not, why not?

    Some people will want to be good bureaucrats, just as some people want to be good mechanics. It’s up to the rest of us to identify them and listen.