Point of View Columns

WWTRD?

The Japanese ideogram for “disaster” also can be translated to mean “opportunity”. Indeed, within every disaster there is indeed an opportunity and at some point sooner than later we will have to learn that the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to change some fundamental aspects about the way that life is lived in these United States.
We can begin with how the interests of the American people are articulated and protected. During the nascent days of what will clearly be a disaster of epic proportions, it seemed as if the federal government had entered into some bizarre partnership with British Petroleum – working together to “fix this thing”. At one point press conferences and professionally congenial and collegial exchanges seemed to be the order of the day.
In a frightening and unfortunate way this kind of perceived relationship made sense in light of the fact that when it comes to the oil industry and off-shore drilling the regulatory processes of the federal government range from inept to criminally incompetent. According to the New York Times the cursory 4-8 hour inspection of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig by the United States Coast Guard (an inspection that is supposed to take 2-3 weeks) was followed by the misguided approval by the Minerals and Management Service (of the United States Department of the Interior) of the blowout preventer without specific information regarding the strength of this critical piece of machinery.
This laissez faire approach is emblematic of the Bush-Cheney days of darkness in this country. But the chummy relationship between government and the oil industry transcends elections and the soaring rhetoric of change – the permanent government is indeed that permanent. Consider that, when the Obama Administration determined to allow for a limited expansion of off-shore drilling, ironically just days before the Deepwater Horizon calamity, the reform and transformation of the historically inept Minerals and Management Service was not even an agenda item.
Of course, now that the Gulf of Mexico is going to hell in a hand basket, there is an opportunity to place the reform and transformation of the MMS on the federal agenda. But hopefully, there will be an embracing of a broader opportunity to examine the relationship between the regulatory agencies and the regulated industries and whether those relationships as they currently exist are in the best interests of the American people.
We have known for years that the MMS has been little more than a toothless and pampered tiger in the eyes of the energy industry. The scandals of a few years ago involving energy industry executives and MMS employees being in bed (literally) and generally carousing and partying as colleagues often do, do not appear to be isolated instances. The refinery explosion in Houston in 2005 and the deaths of miners and oil rig workers this year are sad reminders of the consequences of these cozy relationships.
But there is also an opportunity to look at the regulation of all of the other industries that are important to the daily well-being of the American population. The financial services fiasco of recent vintage can be traced to the shocking lack of oversight of the financial industry. The pandemic of faulty Chinese drywall in American homes, the all too frequent E-coli outbreaks in the national food supply and recently revealed transgressions involving Toyota are clearly signs that a system for protecting the American people is clearly in need of redesign.
The philosophical source for much of the reformation and regulation of the American marketplace began with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. And it might be useful at this critical point in time to ask what would President Theodore Roosevelt do if presented with today’s BP crisis? WWTRD? As a lifelong student of history I think that a fair answer to that question would entail the following scenario – first and foremost a federal receiver would be appointed to monitor all of the actions of BP America so that the federal government would have clear and unfettered access to all aspects of the response of BP to this disaster. Second, he would demand that the United Kingdom appoint a similar receiver to monitor all aspects of the activities of the parent company, particularly such questionable acts as paying $10 billion in dividends to BP shareholders last week as a multi-billion dollar liability clearly looms in the future. The U.S. receiver could certainly have questioned and quite likely blocked BP’s expenditure of $50 million on its current public relations campaign when those funds could be used for relief and cleanup efforts.
Roosevelt would certainly freeze all assets of BP in the United States pending the resolution of litigation that has barely begun but that will clearly involve billions of dollars of damages. Roosevelt would note that the United States has recently frozen the assets of Saddam Hussein and the government of Iran. Saddam and Iran, after all the rhetorical flourishes, have never visited a scintilla of the destruction and damage on this country that has already been recorded by BP.
Roosevelt would have immediately commenced criminal investigations of all aspects of the BP enterprise using the RICCO statutes so as to classify BP as an ongoing criminal enterprise given its steadfast adherence to a policy of avoiding and deferring safety regulations and procedures that have now endangered the economy of the entire Southeastern quadrant of the United States. And Roosevelt would have blocked the borders of the United States to prevent all key BP executives from leaving this country until their criminal liability could be ascertained.
Perhaps it’s time for President Obama to channel the historical personal of Theodore Roosevelt and craft an answer in his own inimitable fashion to the question of the moment – WWTRD?

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