The oil spill and the limits of government

Andy Matthews

In his victory speech upon clinching the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama famously told supporters that his triumph would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

It's difficult to imagine a better demonstration of that statement's absurdity than the seemingly endless torrent of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, as our president stands by, powerless to do anything about it.

Turns out the man who promised to be Superman can't even do Aquaman.

Now, to be fair, some expectations of our understandably impatient populace — Obama's own role in building those expectations notwithstanding — are unreasonable. The president shouldn't be blamed for the rig explosion that unleashed this crisis, and he shouldn't be blamed for the fact that weeks later, he still can't "plug the damned hole."

Still, the Obama administration has made serious missteps. It refused help from the Dutch — who have extensive experience with these types of situations — because of a law dating to 1920 that requires goods transported between U.S. ports to be carried on U.S. flagships. The president has the authority to suspend that law.

The administration also dragged its feet when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal requested permission to build sand barriers to protect his state's coast. And it failed to take swift action to begin burning the oil off the water.

But the greatest error of all will follow if the president refuses to learn the right lessons from this episode and instead allows it to become a catalyst for misguided policy. His Oval Office address to the nation Tuesday night was not encouraging.

After going through the motions of pledging that the federal government would do all within its power to combat the spill and to nurse the Gulf region back to health, the president turned his attention to what he sees as the real challenge that must now be met: the greening of the American economy. If only we would recognize this tragedy as a wake-up call, and understand that Mother Earth is telling us to "end our addiction to oil" and become "eco-conscious" and all that jazz, why, we would be forever spared from having to see another heart-breaking image of a helpless pelican covered in black goo.

As if to support his point, President Obama raised a question: Why are we drilling 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface to begin with? It's an excellent question, though the rest of his speech suggests that what he was really asking is: Why drill for oil at all?

The second question is answered easily: We have to. People need to be able to get from Point A to Point B, and oil is required to get them there. Cars can't run on windmills, solar power or pixie dust. Our entire economy's functioning requires oil.

The answer to the first question, however, is what truly matters — even if the president isn't interested in it. Oil companies drill deep in the ocean, where it's extremely dangerous, because government restrictions prevent drilling in places where it's much safer: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Rocky Mountains or just off our Atlantic and Pacific coasts, to name only a few.

So instead of dealing with oil spills on land or in shallow water, where mishaps can be controlled in just a couple of hours, minimizing environmental damage, the nation is confronted by a spill nearly a mile under water that no one seems able to stop.

The real lesson here is the danger of putting too much faith in government. Government regulations forced drilling off into the dangerous deep, where the effects of a spill would be catastrophic. Heavily funded government agencies that exist specifically to prevent such disasters from occurring failed spectacularly. And they continue to botch the clean-up process.

Naturally, then, our president's reaction to all this is to call for the creation of a "green" economy. Considering the lack of interest demonstrated by the free market (i.e., we the people) in this notion, all this would mean is yet more intervention from the government. Of course, the president has no idea how exactly we're going to build this new utopia. Not knowing how to get there, he nevertheless is sure that he and the government can lead the way.

And therein lies what may ultimately be the oil spill's most tragic storyline of all. The lesson President Obama should have learned from this episode is that there are limits to what government can accomplish, no matter how well-intentioned and rhetorically gifted its leaders may be.

Blind to that lesson, he wants the very government that has proven itself so inept … to do even more.

Andy Matthews is vice president for operations and communications at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit