The Corner

The Gulf’s First Best Hope?

Rory Cooper, director of strategic communications at the Heritage Foundation, just spent a week in the Gulf on what Heritage is calling a fact-finding mission. He chats with the Corner this morning about what he found there.

LOPEZ: First off: Do you have any intel on this capping that happened last night?

COOPER: All reports are that last night’s cap gives us the best reason for hope in over 80 days. The cap is temporary and designed to build pressure in the well. They will still have to finish relief wells, hopefully by August, as promised. After the next 48 hours of testing, we’ll know if oil has been contained. I pray that will be the case. But we have to remember that even if the oil flow is contained, the crisis is still far from over. We can’t lose focus on the damage already done, and the clean-up that still needs to occur.

LOPEZ: What next, when and if the spilling stops?

COOPER: What worries me is that once it stops, and once the live feed stops showing oil spilling, people will forget about the oil that is already in the water, and the long-term environmental and economic damage that it and the drilling moratorium are having on the Gulf States.

LOPEZ: On Twitter last night, you were encouraging people to tweet about the oil spill. There is a page on the Heritage website with the headline “Remember the Gulf”? Are people forgetting? How can they? As you point out, there a camera poised on the spill literally, never mind rhetorically.

COOPER: The American people are not forgetting. Unfortunately, the federal government is behaving like this crisis doesn’t exist. President Obama has spoken, briefly, about this crisis only twice since his Oval Office address a month ago. The people of Louisiana that I spoke with see no sense of urgency in the federal clean-up response, and that is evident in permitting delays, skimmer delays, and deployed manpower.

LOPEZ: What encouraged you to head down there?

COOPER: The Heritage Foundation saw a federal response that was sorely lacking in urgency and concern. Instead of cleaning the environment, they’re focusing on cap-and-trade taxes and imposing an unnecessary drilling moratorium, which ironically increases the risk of another spill as platforms start up and shut down more frequently. We compiled a “To-Do List” that President Obama could immediately act on to improve the situation. This wasn’t about politics or Monday-morning quarterbacking, but to let people know that there were obvious responses that the White House was ignoring. We travelled to the Gulf to see with our own eyes the affects of the government malaise and to add more actionable items to that list.

LOPEZ: Where did you go exactly? For how long? What did the schedule look like? Who did you bring with you?

COOPER: The group included myself, former congressman Ernest Istook, national and homeland security expert James Carafano, and energy experts Jack Spencer and Nick Loris, and we travelled across the state between Tuesday and Friday of last week. We were in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Grand Isle, Port Fourchon, Plaquemines Parish, Lafourche Parish, St. Bernard’s Parish — in other words, we covered a lot of ground and spoke with a ton of people in four short days. And we’re not done. We’re sending more folks down this week and will be having others return next week. We’re not going to rest until the White House begins taking this crisis seriously.

LOPEZ: Why a homeland-security expert?

COOPER: The U.S. Coast Guard currently has command authority, and is working in tandem with BP, and National Guard units in Louisiana are also deployed and assisting. This response will tell us a lot about how the Obama administration will respond to other domestic problems, whether natural disaster or terrorism related. Right now, the example they’re setting is disheartening and worrisome. Admiral Thad Allen is a doing the best he can under the circumstances, but we need a high-level political figure in the Obama administration who is directly accountable to the people.

LOPEZ: What did you find?

COOPER: The #1 priority of every Louisianan we spoke with was for President Obama to end his drilling-moratorium campaign. After two federal courts struck it down, he’s still actively trying to destroy the local economy and for no valid reason. Secondly, we heard over and over again that the federal government is being reckless in their delays of permits. Rock jetties, dykes, and sand berms are needed yesterday to protect the fragile coastline, yet the government is simply being unresponsive. The barriers are paid for, delivered and temporary, yet the government is ignoring the request to build. We also heard disappointment in the makeup of the president’s oil-spill commission, which is only made up of environmentalists with an axe to grind. Also, response crews are only being allowed to work 20 minutes an hour, and only in daylight. This is a 24/7 crisis and is being met with an unbalanced response.

LOPEZ: We’re hearing different things about Bobby Jindal’s job performance in regard to this spill. What say you?

COOPER: As my colleague Jim Carafano said: “This is not Governor Blanco’s Louisiana.” Governor Jindal has been a real hero of this effort. Every day he convenes a meeting of the State Unified Command Group and manages the entire state response. He asks tough questions and demands the right answers. We wish President Obama had half the focus of Governor Jindal.

LOPEZ: What is the federal government’s role today?

COOPER: The federal government needs to stop the leak, first and foremost. But its other #1 priority, side-by-side, is to clean the oil that has already spilled. While BP is paying for the effort, the government has the sole obligation to lead it. But in reality, the role they are playing is one of delays, bureaucracy and red tape. The federal effort so far is a catastrophic failure.

LOPEZ: Has it missed opportunities?

COOPER: Of course. The federal government let weeks and months slip by while ignoring international offers of assistance; they failed to deploy skimmers when necessary and are still not transparent about what skimming capabilities they have; their delays on permitting rock jetties and sand berms have hampered state and local efforts to protect the environment and surely caused irreversible damage to the Louisiana ecosystem.

LOPEZ: Who is to blame?

COOPER: The buck stops with President Obama, right? That’s what we were told by the Left for years after Hurricane Katrina, yet this White House is getting a free pass from most members of the national media and its base. This is the type of crisis where the environmental Left and conservatives should be able to agree on the essentials, yet a political global-warming agenda, and the prospect of federal dollars is blinding their conscience.

LOPEZ: Has there been a “shakedown” of BP?

COOPER: I wouldn’t call it a shakedown, but it certainly looks like a slush fund. Listen, everyone wants BP to pay every single dollar they owe, and that should be done quickly and effectively. But President Obama secured this liability deal with BP behind closed doors. We haven’t seen the contract and we don’t know the details. While Ken Feinberg seems like a good man, he is hardly independent. He was already employed by President Obama. The state and local officials are begging for transparency in the claims process so they can see who is getting paid what and where claims are going ignored but all they are given is raw data and generic numbers. We need some sunlight on this process from the deal itself to the claim disbursements.

LOPEZ: What are your right-now policy prescriptions?

COOPER: 1. End the drilling moratorium ASAP. Let the people of the Gulf focus on clean-up and not the potential loss of their jobs and economy.

2. Streamline the federal permitting process and put someone accountable in charge. We need to get protective barriers built ASAP.

3. Accept all offers of international assistance without delay, or explain why some offers are being rejected.

4. Make the Claims process transparent.

5. Allow entrepreneurs to offer assistance without bureaucratic roadblocks. We have some really smart people in America with some really great ideas on how to stop the leak and clean the oil. Let’s listen to them rather than be risk-averse.

6. Waive or suspend any prohibitive federal regulations as was done after Katrina. For example, the EPA requires all discharged water from skimmers to be 100 percent pure, rather than the 99 percent purity you actively get. Let’s use common sense — 99 percent is better than zero percent.

7. Safety inspections should be done offshore, rather than in port. We’re losing days of response while life jackets and fire extinguishers are counted.

LOPEZ: Are there long-term ones as well?

COOPER: Yes. But we need to focus on the right-now. Debating long-term policies is going to turn this into a political hot potato. The response to the oil in the water needs to be our primary focus. We heard from many experts that we could permanently have inspectors stationed on the oil rigs, paid for by the oil companies, with independent oversight to strengthen the safety-regulation process. There are many ideas out there, but let’s clean the Gulf first — same goes for cap-and-trade, which is ridiculous to discuss right now.

LOPEZ: What disturbed you most while being down there?

COOPER: The federal level of inattention is simply mind-boggling. It’s hard to understand how some of the items on the president’s schedule in the past three months have taken precedence over this disaster. That this is not getting more national coverage concerns me as well. What happens when the oil stops leaking, or the countdown clock passes an arbitrary 100-day deadline? The consequences of this disaster will last for years, while Washington stopped paying attention in June.

LOPEZ: What impressed you most while being down there?

COOPER: I love the people of Louisiana. I spent four years there in college, my wife’s family is from there, and they are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. They know their backyard better than anyone and they know how to protect it. They’re ready to tackle these problems head on, if people will simply get out of their way. They take a lot of hits down there, and they always bounce back, so long as we let them.

LOPEZ: How can people away from the Gulf constructively help fellow Americans there whose livelihoods have been devastated by the spill — financially, practically, politically?

COOPER: This is one of those rare disasters where financial needs are met solely by the persons responsible, BP, which is the way it should be. However, the absence of telethons or Red Cross drives also means it’s harder to keep the public’s attention, and thereby pressure on lawmakers and the president to do the right thing. So, the best way people can help is to put the heat on the White House to act responsibly. E-mail, blog, or tweet about stories you feel are going unnoticed. I also know the Louisiana seafood industry would appreciate everyone’s business as well. Every piece of seafood that makes it from the Gulf to market is some of the safest in the world given the new stringent testing. Plus, it’s delicious.

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