A: Not only realistic but it may become necessary — both operationally and politically. If the disaster continues to worsen, it’s untenable for a for-profit corporation to be in charge.
Q: But why should we expect government to do any better job than BP?
A: BP would still be at the job — and its expertise, equipment, and other assets would continue to be utilized. But the federal government would be in overall control of the operation — weighing public risks and benefits, deciding what resources are necessary, getting accurate information and disseminating it to the public.
Q: Why should we trust the government?
A: This isn’t an ideological contest about how little you trust a giant oil company versus the federal government. It’s a matter of accountability. BP’s primary responsibility is to its shareholders. And it will cut corners — as it has before — if that’s the best way to maximize the value of their shares. But only the government, through the President, is directly accountable to the American public, and responsible for protecting it.
Q: Under what legal authority could the President take control of BP’s North American operations?
A: Obama has implicit authority through laws and regulations dealing with offshore drilling, especially the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. By analogy, if a nuclear reactor were melting down, the President would use his regulatory authority over nuclear energy to take temporary control over the plant and the relevant parts of the corporation that ran it. President Truman seized the nation’s steel mills in 1952, arguing that the emergency of the Korean War necessitated it. (The Supreme Court ultimately blocked him but according to Justice Jackson, whose opinion was essentially the majority’s, that was because Truman had no statutory basis for the seizure, not even an implicit one. That isn’t the case here.)
Q: But BP is a British corporation. How can the U.S. government take control?
A: The nationality of a corporation’s shareholders has nothing to do with it. If it is operating within the jurisdiction of the United States and poses a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of Americans, a president would take control of its operations and assets in the United States.
Q: Do you really think Obama would do this? Wouldn’t he prefer to stay away from this mess and keep the responsibility squarely on BP?
A: He may not have much of a choice. If the disaster worsens and Obama doesn’t take control he risks inheriting the mantle of Katrina.
Q: What will force his hand?
A: The White House is already inching toward control. BP’s new admission that it can’t stop the leak until August has shocked a public already deeply distrustful of it. As new evidence emerges of the scale of the disaster, the pressure on the Administration to take full and open control will only grow. Last Saturday Energy Secretary Chu asked BP to cease its so-called “top kill” effort to stop up the gush because he and his team of scientists had concluded it was too risky. Now the White House has to decide whether BP’s continued use of highly toxic dispersants poses more of a threat to the public and the environment than a help. When do these decisions tip over into control? Any time now.
A petroleum engineer who’s worked in the oil industry tells me BP is doing the minimum to clean up the oil and everything it can to protect its bottom line. According to the engineer, here’s what BP should be doing right now to mitigate the damage. If the President were to put BP into temporary receivership, he’d have the power to get BP to:
1. Stop releasing dispersants. So-called dispersants are toxic, and it’s crazy to add more poison to the Gulf. Dispersants do nothing to assist the environment in naturally cleaning the oil; their main use is PR. They reduce the number of ugly pictures of birds covered in pure black crude. Dispersants break the thick layer of crude into smaller globs, but that doesn’t help the Gulf and its wildlife. Most of the crude just mixes with the water to produce a goop that looks like chocolate ice cream but is highly poisonous.
2. Mobilize every possible tanker to siphon up crude from as close to the leak points as possible. Oil industry leaders as John Hofmeister (president of Shell Oil from 2005 until 2008) have recommended this, but inexplicably neither BP nor the federal government are talking about even trying this idea. BP currently has only one spot where they have inserted a tube into a riser, or pipe, that is leaking oil from the sea floor. The company is gathering the crude oil and siphoning it up to a drill ship for storage.
They should have at least a dozen collectors. BP has 24 tankers that are being used to make money for BP, not for clean-up duty. (President Obama should also use all necessary federal power — or money, and send BP the bill — to put as many tankers and refineries from other companies on the task.)
Mile-long pipes could be dangled down into the crude spewing from the wellhead and at each breach in the riser pipe, and the tankers could pump the crude mixed with water back into the tankers. They could then separate the crude and water in the tanker, and pump the water out on the spot. This should continue until each tanker is full of oil. The crude should then be taken to a refinery for processing, as other tankers take their place. Submersibles can be used to monitor the uptake into the dangling pipes, moving them as needed to keep them picking up as much crude as possible.
Even after some separation time in the tankers, the crude will be contaminated with water beyond the typical water contamination levels acceptable at refineries. This would drive up the price of gas in the short term. The president will need to go on TV and ask all Americans to cut their gasoline and energy usage in half, as an emergency response to the disaster in the Gulf, so that tankers and refineries can enact these far-from-perfect cleanup measures.
3. Restart work on the second pressure relief well. BP did start work on two relief wells as the government requested, but the second has been shut down to cannabalize parts from it for the primary well kill effort. The President must order BP to spend whatever money it takes to get another blow out preventer on site, to re-start work on the second pressure relief well. A recent blow-out off the coast of Australia required five pressure relief wells to successfully shut it down.