How should we think about the BP oil spill?

Frank Hill Contributor
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One of the most mind-jarring images of the current disaster in the Gulf, besides the thousands of dead wildlife in the water so far, has been the sight of lawyers and environmental activists getting out of their monster Escalades or Yukon SUVs in Louisiana to “investigate the damage caused by that awful oil company, BP America.”

We wonder if we would even need any oil imports from Saudi Arabia or offshore drilling if everyone drove Priuses or rode bicycles to work rather than these gas-guzzling SUVs. So if you do one or both, you should be proud of yourself for ‘walking the talk’ of being environmentally conscious and lowering our dependence on foreign oil.

A treehugger friend of ours from way back, who works in the solar division of a major company by the way, told us that with all of the money that will eventually be paid by BP and the federal government to clean this enormous mess up in the Gulf, we probably could outfit every house in the United States with solar panels. This would effectively heat everyone’s water, provide a significant share of their annual electricity needs and offset a large part of their annual heating and cooling costs.

Think about how much that would reduce our dependence on foreign oil and or offshore drilling going forward.

We can point our fingers all day long at all of the “dirty corporations” or “foreigners,” but the circle keeps coming back to us Americans, the most voracious consumers of natural and manufactured resources the world has ever known. We are like swarms of locusts when you really think about it.

Should BP bear a lot of the burden of the cost of this oil spill cleanup? Sure. Apparently they were not fully prepared to handle this explosion and to the extent they are culpable and liable for the accident, they should be held accountable like any other person or corporation in America.

But isn’t there some responsibility the entire nation should accept for the cleanup? We say we want to “lower our dependence on foreign oil,” especially since now we know that the Saudi government has been at least passive supporters of terrorist activities against the United States since before 9/11, so off-shore drilling is one logical alternative we have to pursue.

Americans most definitely want to keep prices for gas and oil “low” by any means necessary. By the world’s standards, we are by far one of the lowest-price nations for both petroleum products. We remember the days of the first ‘energy crisis’ in the early 1970s when we had to line up at gas stations on ‘odd/even’ days (don’t ask!) in order to fill our energy-inefficient Mustang and Camaro gas tanks up so we could go to school or just cruise around town with the top down.

It cost an “unfathomable” $1/gallon then. By any sort of inflation-adjusted basis now 40 years later, gasoline for our cars should cost a modest $5.46/gallon today just due to inflation. For some reason, the cost of gasoline has dropped relative to inflation almost like computer prices have dropped over that time span. Why is that?

Let’s think about the cost of this cleanup:

  1. If BP pays for the entire cleanup, it could bankrupt the company and take another competitor out of the market that otherwise would help keep prices down.
  2. If BP pays for the entire cost, do you think they will or they will not pass along all of that cost in the form of higher prices over any length of time it takes to fully recover or amortize the cost of the cleanup?
  3. Is there an obligation of the federal government, on behalf of its citizens who clamor for lower gas prices harder than any other issue, including national health care, to help pay for this cleanup since we have benefited from oil being pumped out of the Gulf of Mexico for lo these many years?
  4. Are man-made disasters really any different than natural disasters like Katrina or the volcano in Iceland blowing up? A disaster that affects you is a disaster regardless of how it happens.

One of the things that irritated us the most when we were serving on the Budget Committee was when Congress would pass a supplemental appropriations bill to pay for the cleanup and repair of any disaster immediately afterwards.

Supplemental appropriations have become another way to subvert fiscal discipline and restraint under the guise of natural disasters and national emergencies. These bills are the white sandwich bread upon which additional earmarks for special projects are piled on by members of Congress for their favorite programs, oftentimes hundreds or thousands of miles away from the actual site of the disaster.
Our view is that the federal government should start accounting for disaster cleanups on a forward-looking basis in the annual budgets by allocating, let’s say, $20 billion in a “clean-up” fund or whatever has been the running average for annual disaster cleanups for the past 20 years.

Sure, that might take away funding from some other parts of the budget but isn’t having a contingency fund for such disasters really much more important than having any funds allocated to any more Lawrence Welk museums or “Bridges to Nowhere”?

At least then, we would have the resources already set aside to deal with catastrophes such as Katrina and now the BP oil spill. Haven’t we learned enough from history that we are always going to have unexpected events like these?

Frank Hill has served as chief of staff to former Congressman Alex McMillan (R-N.C.), House Budget Committee staff, Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform staff, and as chief of staff to former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).