Obama, Lord of the Rings

The Gulf oil spill and the temptations of executive power


Your moral bearings obviously have been corrupted by high concentrations of carbon dioxide.

You've gotten past that scandalous word—"oil"—for a moment and begun to wonder who gave the administration the authority to shut down a vital regional industry without a shred of scientific evidence or tangible safety concern.

Perhaps it's just that unshakable affection you have for BP (Exxon is also dreamy), but you wonder aloud how the administration has the power to extract $20 billion from a corporate partner—without congressional or independent oversight or even an executive order—and then name a political appointee to head up the fund and allow him to mete out the money any way he sees fit.

You're pretty sure, judging from the administration's track record—from "stimulus" to the health care legislation to fiscal reform and so on—that it would be patently absurd to trust it could divvy out billions without attaching political considerations.

Then again, you're a coal-lovin' shill. No, it doesn't matter that Barack Obama was the top recipient of BP's political action committee and individual bucks over the past 20 years. It is irrelevant that BP was a founding member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership and lobbies for cap-and-trade schemes.

According to The Wall Street Journal, in fact, the administration's compensation fund has a little something for BP, as well. "In the end," the piece states, "one aim of the fund—and a prime reason BP agreed to it—will be to minimize lawsuits against the company."

To minimize lawsuits against the company is the function of Kenneth Feinberg—with imperial experience as auto bailout "compensation czar"—who went on to say that he "will have to make an offer—'You take this amount in full satisfaction of your claim, but only if you waive your right to future litigation.'"

If BP had independently begun to offer similar ultimatums to Gulf-area citizens, rest assured Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would have unleashed one of his boot-to-the-throat smackdowns as he faced off against imaginary enemies near and far.

Salazar was the one who told Congress that experts backed his plan for a blanket moratorium on further deep-water drilling, when experts had said nearly the opposite. (Salazar later apologized.) Many engineers, in fact, warn that shutting down wells and then restarting drilling—with the migration of drill rigs, technology, and human capital—would only increase risk in the long run.

And on Tuesday, some nitrous oxide-loving federal judge in New Orleans blocked the executive overreach, saying the administration "simply cannot justify the immeasurable effect on the plaintiffs, the local economy, the Gulf region, and the critical present-day aspect of the availability of domestic energy in this country."

Nor can the administration justify the escrow fund. BP already had pledged to waive the $75 million liability cap Congress had bequeathed the company. It had written 31,000 checks totaling more than $100 million before the compensation fund was established. There were very few complaints—other than political ones aimed at Barack Obama.

Surely The American Trial Lawyers Association could enlighten the White House to the benefit and fairness of class action suits. If the arrangement is broken or too slow, shouldn't we have some tort reformed? Is it really "mediation" when the administration and an oil company collude to decide what's best for the victims?

As many on the left have argued for years, simply because we have an emergency or threat—the war on terror, for example—is no excuse to abuse executive power or ignore our excellent legal system.

Or does all that change because oil is involved?

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com.