The current drumbeat of commentary on the right that the Obama administration was too slow in responding to the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf raises two obvious questions.
One: Is it true? The answer is “no,” according to, among other things, a memo published by, of all sources, National Review Online.
And second: Who on the right was ahead of President Obama on calling for the spill to be declared a disaster of national significance? As far as we can determine, no one, based on a search of major right-wing websites.
Media Matters has compiled a timeline of the federal response to the oil spill, based on mainstream news reports and statements from both the White House and BP, the company managing the collapsed oil rig that caused the spill. The timeline notes that from April 20, the day a fire broke out on the rig, the U.S. Coast Guard was intimately involved, and that the very next day an Obama cabinet-level meeting on the disaster resulted in Interior Department officials being dispatched to the scene.
The reporting during the period reminds us that it was BP that downplayed the impact of the leak, and it was federal officials who discovered that the spill was worse than what BP was saying either privately or publicly. On April 29, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared the oil spill av “event of national significance,” which officially made federal emergency management resources available to address the spill, even as a BP executive was on ABC’s “Good Morning America” saying, “I believe our plan can handle this spill, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The Associated Press reported April 30 that “government scientists realized the leak was five times larger than they had been led to believe, and days of lulling statistics and reassuring words gave way Thursday to an all-hands-on-deck emergency response. Now questions are sure to be raised about a self-policing system that trusted a commercial operator to take care of its own mishap even as it grew into a menace imperiling Gulf Coast nature and livelihoods from Florida to Texas.”
Meanwhile, what was happening in the conservative blogosphere?
We looked for oil spill commentary on RedState.com, World Net Daily, National Review Online, Townhall.com and Human Events. The earliest entry we found was an April 25 RedState.com commentary from “Vladimir,” who identifies himself as “Operations Manager for a small Gulf of Mexico oil & gas explorer & producer.” Rather than calling for federal action to contain the spill, Vladimir pooh-poohs calls for more regulation of the oil business in light of the rig collapse, adding that “More regulation does not mean more safety; a bureaucratic approach to safety actually makes people less focused on safe results and more focused on CYA paperwork.” He concludes: “The fact is, the offshore oil and gas business is motivated to be safe and environmentally responsible for many reasons that have nothing to do with regulatory oversight … We have yet to figure out how to make a nickel by spilling oil or by recklessly exposing workers to job hazards.” Hmm.
These conservative sites were silent on the issue until April 29, when “Vladimir” adds a post to Red State headlined “Offshore Safety Factoids” that notes mockingly that BP is getting a safety award at a Houston oil conference. Vladimir also notes that “The President promised today to send Department of the Interior “SWAT teams” offshore “to investigate oil rigs.” He doesn’t exactly praise the decision, linking to his April 25 post.
The calls on the right for more aggressive federal action come after the Obama administration commits to more aggressive federal action. On April 29, The Washington Times’ Joseph Curl writes that “the rapidly expanding environmental catastrophe caused by the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana is presenting a growing political challenge to the Obama White House.” The paper contends that the spill “could dwarf the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska” but adds “Mr. Obama only Thursday (April 29) dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson to help coordinate the federal response to the potential environmental disaster.”
Still, on May 1, Red State’s “ladyimpactohio” asks that we put the Gulf oil spill in perspective: “Yes, the oil spill in the Louisiana Gulf near New Orleans is and will be a tragedy. … But let’s face it. There are dangerous and difficult jobs in the world.” And besides, she says, this is nothing compared to the oil spilled “January 21, 1991 in the Persian Gulf after the 1st Gulf War. It is estimated anywhere from 1,360,000–1,500,000 TONS of crude oil was spilled.”
On May 3, as criticism on the right of Obama’s alleged inaction reached fever pitch, National Review Online posted a memo from a person who describes himself as “a mid-level government guy on the inside.”
The memo, dated April 21, notes that Coast Guard and NOAA were already on the scene and were anticipating the worst: “Should the semisubmersible sink or detach from the riser, it is likely that the fire mitigation would be lost. A major oil spill would be the expected result. Failure to shut in the well using the control system at the seafloor would potentially create a continued release of crude oil until a relief well could be drill (a time period characterized as several weeks). “
The person who submitted the memo wrote, “I am also no fan of the Obama Administration, and while I normally enjoy it when he catches grief, in this instance the criticism is undeserved. The federal and industry response to this disaster was appropriate and timely. … Everyone involved (CG/NOAA/MMS/BP) knew of the potential for disaster from the very beginning. Please trust me when I tell you that those of us at the pointy end of the spear were going balls-to-the- wall on this thing from day one, and we weren’t sitting around waiting for “help” or “direction” or “leadership” from the President or Secretary Napolitano.”
The appearance of that memo on National Review Online has had no apparent effect on how the right has characterized—make that mischaracterized—the Obama administration’s response to a national tragedy that speaks more about the consequences of conservative ideology than it does about President Obama’s ability to respond to a national disaster.