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Published: Tuesday, 6/8/2010

Tough on oil

THE position President Obama is taking on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is important, if a little tardy.

The deaths of 11 workers were the first painful outcomes of the April 20 oil rig explosion. They came on the heels of another fossil fuel tragedy, the deaths of 29 Massey Energy coal miners two weeks earlier in West Virginia.

The explosion's aftermath brought the horrible realization by Americans that crude oil was surging into the gulf and heading toward land. Disquiet over that growing environmental and economic threat was augmented by the absence of any authoritative government statement about how much oil was escaping.

There were only statements from BP, which won less confidence as time went on. Nor was there a reliable estimate of how long it would take to plug the well.

Not long after the disaster, the need for a strong government role became clear. Statements came from different government bodies at the federal, state, and local levels, but from Mr. Obama there were largely generalized statements of concern. Talk arose that the BP oil spill was Mr. Obama's Katrina - a reference to President George W. Bush's ineffective response to the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast.

Since then, the President has pledged his full attention and attached his highest priority to dealing with the spill. He conceded the federal government has done a poor job for years of regulating the oil industry. He has visited the coastal area to survey the damage.

In a sense, Mr. Obama inherited this disaster waiting to happen from a regulation-averse, industry-friendly Bush administration. But the same approach to offshore drilling prevailed under previous administrations and continued in the Obama Administration until the accident.

Mr. Obama or one of his administration surrogates can't swim down and plug the leak. The government must rely on the oil and service companies to solve the problem - the same institutions that were so smart about how to drill deep down, but not especially concerned over how to fix a cataclysmic leak.

The President has frozen new offshore drilling until Americans know what happened in the gulf and techniques for dealing with mile-down disasters are perfected. This policy should help reassure the inhabitants of U.S. shores and other Americans concerned about their well-being.

There will be ample time to measure the political damage the spill has done to Mr. Obama - a point he seems to understand. Cap the well, wipe off the ducks, and talk politics later.



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