President Hamlet's Energy Policy

Obama is proving to be as indecisive on energy policy as he is on so many other things. He is a leader as indecisive as Hamlet.

Consider his actions on Afghanistan. Obama ran on the promise of making Afghanistan the focus of our military efforts, claiming it was, unlike Iraq, a legitimate and important war. But when the new general Obama selected to conduct that war recommended a decisive surge, Obama spent months in agonizing deliberation, and then sent only a portion of the troops his general had requested.

Prince Hamlet, in describing himself, describes Obama no less well: "And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought / And enterprises of great pith and moment / With this regard, their currents turn awry / And lose the name of action."

President Obama's handling of energy policy shows the same indecision. He campaigned on a promise of making America energy-independent, ceaselessly bashing the Bush administration for doing nothing in that regard. He promised endless green energy, which would producing millions of green jobs and (during the period when oil prices spiked) more oil and nuclear energy. But in office, Obama has only dithered. During his first year, he merely threw some money at "renewable" energy while spending all his time on health care "reform."

After a year, he finally condescended to address nuclear power and greater domestic oil drilling. He made a big show of allowing federal loan guarantees for a new nuclear plant, but he made no effort to lower the massive regulatory and licensing hurdles that impede construction of new plants. Nor did he raise a finger to stop the closure of the Yucca Mountain site for storage of nuclear waste. And he never attempted to plot a broad path for the expansion of nuclear power.

What would a decisive leader have done? First, to get residents of Nevada to support a waste site, offer them a yearly cash payment. This payment would be like the payment Alaska residents get for allowing oil drilling in their state and would be paid for by a tax on all nuclear power. Second, set up a commission of the best minds in the industry, headed by someone with strong pro-environmentalist and pro-nuclear credentials, to chart a course for the construction of three hundred new plants and upgrades for the existing plants over the next two decades. The commission would select the safest, most efficient current feasible design and lay out a timetable for building the first fifty new plants of the same design (to minimize costs, enable the mass training of new personnel, and ensure that trained personnel could readily move from plant to plant). That commission would also select the design of the first group of fast breeder reactors and reprocessing plants.

None of this has been done, needless to say, or even contemplated, by our President Hamlet.

Even more risible is Obama's so-called oil policy. Again, after a year of doing nothing to allow increased oil production, indeed, having his Interior Secretary Salazar put even more of the continent and continental shelf off-limits, Obama decided to offer a bone to the people who want more domestic oil production. He announced that he would open a few areas for exploration, while putting off the actual drilling that had been scheduled. It was a frivolous and pathetic excuse for a policy on drilling.

The came the British Petroleum (BP) oil rig disaster. On April 20, a still-unexplained explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig led to a massive leak. Within days, it was discovered the containment valve system at the base of the well had failed, and oil was leaking. At that point, a decisive president would have immediately flown to the site of the disaster, put the Interior Secretary in charge of an immediate, all-out federal effort, and coordinated with BP and all relevant state officials to contain the spill and prepare for the inevitable clean-up. All available Coast Guard and Naval vessels of any conceivable use to help in the containment and cleanup efforts would have been brought into play, alongside private vessels

A decisive president would also announce that he was assembling a group of non-partisan scientists and engineers (like the group set up to investigate the Challenger space shuttle disaster) to investigate what caused the explosion, how it could have been prevented, why the valve systems that were supposed to stop any spillage failed, how that can be rectified going forward, and what reliable backup systems can be added in the future.

A hypothetical decisive president would have made clear to the American people that the oil industry is basically sound, that the last domestic oil disaster occurred over forty years ago, in spite of all the thousands of oil rigs that have weathered all the hundreds of hurricanes, major storms, and earthquakes that have occurred during all those decades.

Indeed, this mythical decisive leader would make the further point that continued expansion of domestic drilling is still absolutely necessary and that he would couple leasing new areas for oil companies to drill with the requirement that these companies kick in for a fund to come up with even more safety technology and even more backup systems to stop this sort of disaster from recurring.

Additionally, this chimerical decisive president would make the point that if we open up land areas such as ANWR, spills would be even rarer and easier to handle. He would argue that in this as in so many other areas, environmental activists have gotten policies enacted that in fact hurt the environment.

But Obama was not and is not decisive. In fact, his response to the disaster was as bizarrely conflicted as it was grotesquely dilatory. He spent twelve days in Washington essentially doing nothing -- oh, wait, there was the Washington Correspondents' Dinner! -- while the oil spill rapidly ballooned. It took him ten days to send his EPA chief and Interior Secretary down with a squadron of lawyers, apparently under the daffy theory that lawyers are better than engineers at fixing technological problems. (The interior department's chief of staff Tom Strickland was late in joining the party, as he was busy river-rafting in the Grand Canyon. Yes, these people love nature!)

Now, some are calling this "Obama's Katrina," comparing Obama's inaction now to Bush's alleged inaction to Hurricane Katrina. But this comparison is unfair -- to Bush.

First, while during and immediately after the Katrina flooding there was a hurricane blowing through the region, there was no bad weather in Obama's case to stop him from flying down immediately.

Second, the primary responsibility for dealing with the New Orleans disaster lay with its fatuous mayor, Ray "Chocolate City" Nagin, who was too busy arranging for his own family to move to Houston to bother using the city's numerous school buses to get people out (despite Bush's urging immediate evacuation). Also impeding the Feds was the air-headed governor of Louisiana at the time, Kathleen Blanco.

But the BP oil rig disaster took place over fifty miles out at sea, well beyond the jurisdiction of any affected state. It was from the outset solely a federal matter.

Obama has now issued a timeline showing what he has done on this disaster (including, as if he should get compliments for it, the work BP has been doing). But to wait until nearly two weeks after the explosion to even visit the scene, while the crisis grew to become the greatest oil-caused ecological disaster in history, speaks volumes about how fundamentally frivolous  Obama is about energy policy. 

Gary Jason is a contributing editor of Liberty.