Obama’s Oil Spill Address Ends Up Addressing Little

Though the president prefaced things by saying he intended to "lay out ... our battle plan," actually, aside from a few minor details most everyone already knew, the speech was vague and defensive at best, ill-informed at worst.

On the 512th day of his presidency, Barack Obama used his first Oval Office address to try and allay the nation’s fears about the countless barrels of oil currently spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, what he termed the “worst environmental disaster” in American history. Though the president prefaced things by saying he intended to “lay out … our battle plan,” actually, aside from a few minor details most everyone already knew, the speech was vague and defensive at best, ill-informed at worst. Overall, it should have left viewers sure of only one thing: everyone’s still stumped.

Though he did offer up jargon like “skimming” and “boom,” and references to the tens of thousands of men and women working to contain the spill, most of Obama’s best rhetorical advances tonight were almost immediately undermined by timid lines like “these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well,” weak proclamations that won’t win any votes of confidence from the increasingly disappointed American people. Nor will the president’s assurance that “scientists and experts … have provided ideas and advice.” As we all well know by now, ideas and advice are fine, but they won’t necessarily stop the deluge of fossil fuels currently darkening our nation’s coastlines. And to the shrimpers and oystermen out of work in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama tonight, ideas and advice that don’t plug that hole are as useless as millions of gallons of oil floating off into the sea.

What we needed tonight was a leader with a solid vision for not only how to get out of our current predicament but also how to resolve our nation’s energy crisis in the long term. What we got was a president who seemed unaware of what was happening in important government offices and stunned that oil executives would deceive him in order to advance their agendas in our oceans:

A few months ago, I approved a proposal to consider new, limited offshore drilling under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe — that the proper technology would be in place and the necessary precautions would be taken. That was obviously not the case on the Deepwater Horizon rig, and I want to know why.

Perhaps the most interesting passage of Obama’s speech came toward the end, when he declared, “[T]he House of Representatives [passed] a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill — a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses.” While that is true, what the president failed to mention is that that bill is now stalled in the Senate with little to no forward momentum. That Obama omitted that hugely important detail ostensibly means that his administration is willing to tell citizens half-truths if it will make them at least a little less worried about the Gulf and our nation’s unyielding addiction to oil.

Considering the crushing uncertainty of tonight’s speech, it’s no wonder, then, that the president ended it by saying he “[prays] that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.” The only problem is that God can’t stop the leak.

The transcript:

Good evening. As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges. At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al Qaeda wherever it exists. And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.

On April 20th, an explosion ripped through BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven workers lost their lives. Seventeen others were injured. And soon, nearly a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, oil began spewing into the water.

Because there has never been a leak of this size at this depth, stopping it has tested the limits of human technology. That is why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge — a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s Secretary of Energy. Scientists at our national labs and experts from academia and other oil companies have also provided ideas and advice.

As a result of these efforts, we have directed BP to mobilize additional equipment and technology. In the coming days and weeks, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well. This is until the company finishes drilling a relief well later in the summer that is expected to stop the leak completely.

Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it is not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.

But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.

Tonight I’d like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward: what we’re doing to clean up the oil, what we’re doing to help our neighbors in the Gulf, and what we’re doing to make sure that a catastrophe like this never happens again.

First, the cleanup. From the very beginning of this crisis, the federal government has been in charge of the largest environmental cleanup effort in our nation’s history — an effort led by Admiral Thad Allen, who has almost 40 years of experience responding to disasters. We now have nearly 30,000 personnel who are working across four states to contain and cleanup the oil. Thousands of ships and other vessels are responding in the Gulf. And I have authorized the deployment of over 17,000 National Guard members along the coast. These servicemen and women are ready to help stop the oil from coming ashore, clean beaches, train response workers or even help with processing claims — and I urge the governors in the affected states to activate these troops as soon as possible.

Because of our efforts, millions of gallons of oil have already been removed from the water through burning, skimming and other collection methods. Over five and a half million feet of boom has been laid across the water to block and absorb the approaching oil. We have approved the construction of new barrier islands in Louisiana to try and stop the oil before it reaches the shore, and we are working with Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to implement creative approaches to their unique coastlines.