Never Letting a Serious Crisis Go to Waste

Will Obama exploit the BP oil fiasco to further his environmentalist agenda?

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel gained notoriety for declaring his credo: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” In other words, when there is tragedy and suffering, intense human pain and disaster, a political expert enjoys a unique opportunity to push the least popular parts of his agenda past a distracted electorate.

No sooner had President Barack Obama entered the White House than the Emanuel Doctrine was put into motion with the 1,073-page $787 billion “stimulus bill” that had to be rushed through Congress, seemingly overnight.  As Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) said: “We have not had a single hearing on anything in front of us….We’ve been told that even one hearing would be one too many, and that we have a single day to approve these five complex propositions that will affect the lives of millions.”

Faced in January 2009 with a looming national financial catastrophe, as a crash in the residential real estate market prompted a grave Wall Street crisis, the Obama White House detected cover to raid the public till and reward staunch Democrat loyalists under the rubric of a “stimulus bill.”  Beneath the public radar and buried within the bill’s 1,073 pages, the “stimulus” allocated inter alia $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half a billion dollars for people interested in researching “global warming,” even at least $18 million for the website that reports how the “stimulus” funds are allocated.  Overturning a prime achievement of the Clinton Administration, the “stimulus” restored key elements of the welfare practices that America had abandoned. Over time, the “stimulus” has trickled down to fund $233,825 for explaining voting patterns in Africa and $363,760 for two jobs “[d]evelop[ing] ‘real life’ st[or]ies that underscore job and infrastructure related to [the Stimulus Bill] research findings.”

In sum, there was crisis – thus opportunity.  The sweaty-palms sense of crisis that demanded virtually overnight passage before Congressional representatives could read its encyclopedic contents has long since proven exaggerated.  The vast majority of the bill’s funds still have not stimulated anything.  Much of it still has not been infused into the economy.

This is the Emanuel Doctrine:  never let a crisis go to waste.  This doctrine similarly was implemented after the ObamaCare health measure had been all-but-abandoned when Scott Brown surprisingly defeated Attorney-General Martha Coakley in the race for United State Senator from Massachusetts.  Soon after, unexpectedly, a national pseudo-crisis emerged when Anthem Blue Cross, a California health insurer, sought to raise its health premiums by as much as 39 percent.  The crisis was not wasted by Washington.  Within days, ObamaCare was rushed back onto the House calendar.  Forgotten amid the federal legislative carnage that followed – most recently credited with helping bring down Rep. David Obey, Rep. Bart Stupak, and Sen. Arlen Specter – is that Anthem Blue Cross ultimately withdrew their rate-hike request as the California insurance oversight system effectively regulated as intended.

Considered in the light of this prior experience, it becomes understandable why the Obama Administration has opted to curtail oil-exploration, suspending and rescinding permits, in response to the tragic Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill off the Gulf of Mexico.  The story is fresh in the public mind. In raw numbers, eleven have died, and between 18 million and 39 million gallons of oil have gushed along America’s Gulf Coast, already exceeding the Exxon Valdez disaster that spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the waters along Alaska. One of America’s fiercest Democrat partisans, New Orleans resident James Carville, went on an extraordinary tear last week against the Obama Administration:  “The President of the United States could’ve come down here. He could’ve been involved with the families of these 11 people….These people are crying. They’re begging for something down here, and it just looks like he’s not involved in this. Man, you got to get down here and take control of this. Put somebody in charge of this and get this thing moving. We’re about to die down here.” Observing that “[t]he political stupidity of this is just unbelievable,” Carville emphatically repeated his call: “There’s a thousand things that he could do. He just needs to get down here and start doing something, people are dying.”

By last Thursday, the daily Rasmussen tracking poll revealed that 26 percent of Americans strongly approve of the President’s job performance, while 42 percent strongly disapprove, giving Mr. Obama a Presidential Approval rating of minus-16.  A USA Today/Gallup survey found that 53 percent of Americans rate his handling of the crisis as “poor” or “very poor” while only 43 percent still are satisfied.  Nevertheless, Americans continue to support oil exploration. By a significant margin, Texas voters still want more offshore oil drilling.  Similar percentages hold nationally. However, for this White House, proceeding with new drilling would “waste” the crisis.

If Obama’s goal were to evaluate ecologically responsible alternatives to drilling for oil a mile below the gulf’s surface, the White House could reconsider exploring for oil and natural gas in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the north Alaskan coast.  Of ANWR’s 19 million acres, there is enormous potential in a small section, the “10-02 Area,” which still would leave 92% of ANWR untouched. Only one-ten-thousandth of ANWR – a section smaller than LAX airport – actually would have surface drilling rigs. ANWR exploration could pump scores of billions of dollars into the national economy, create half a million great-paying jobs, and reduce American fuel-import expenditures by hundreds of billions of dollars.  Moreover, the local caribou population fare better around oil pipelines than environmentalists ever expected.

The Obama White House also could focus its response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster by intensifying federal efforts to clean the environmental catastrophe to Louisiana’s fishing waters, and by moving rapidly to approve Gov. Bobby Jindal’s almost-frantic pleas for federal permission to erect more protective sand berms along the coast.  However, prior crisis behavior by this White House – whether prompted by a devastating Wall Street collapse or an outlier health insurer inordinately applying to raise rates by 39 percent – reflects that President Obama deems moments like these as unique opportunities for “transformative social change.”  Thus, we may well anticipate an intensified effort in the near term to resuscitate the moribund “Cap and Trade” bill which would add between $1,761 and $3,100 in annual energy costs for most American homes.

For the President’s longer-range vision of this crisis, we again encounter his determination to pursue ideological goals that clash with the American people’s concerns.  He is now stopping new oil exploration: suspending plans for exploratory drilling off the Virginia and Alaska coasts; stopping 33 exploratory drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico, and; continuing a six-month moratorium on all permits for offshore drilling.  Although our Outer Continental Shelf contains as much as 86 billion barrels of oil, with possibly 130 million barrels off the coast of Virginia alone, the President’s response means that we instead will continue importing approximately 13.5 million barrels daily – more than twenty percent of that from the Persian Gulf dictatorships – at prices that now hover around $70 a barrel. We will send Arab Gulf despots some $175 million daily or some $65 billion a year, even as our deficit-driven economy starves for capital, and as our unemployed search for good-paying jobs at home.

Our nation consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil daily, importing nearly sixty percent from foreign countries whose production standards are far less friendly to the polar ice caps than ours.  Saudi Arabia, for example, ranks last as the dirtiest emitter of greenhouse gases among the 57 countries rated on one NGO’s “Climate Change Performance Index.” Moreover, our imported oil necessarily arrives in tankers – the petroleum obviously cannot be delivered any other way – and those tankers pose even more extreme environmental risks.  The 1979 Atlantic Empress tanker spilled 88.3 million gallons of oil.  The ABT Summer tanker spilled 78 million off the Angola Coast in 1991.  The Castillo de Bellver spilled 78.5 million.  The Amoco Cadiz tanker lost 68.7 million gallons off France’s Brittany coast.  The Odyssey spilled 43 million off Nova Scotia. The Haven poured 42 million gallons in the waters outside Italy.  The list goes on. Yet oil-importing tankers have not been suspended from sailing America’s waters.  Nor do we suspend air travel after a tragedy in the sky nor rail transportation after a train wreck.

President Obama has long opposed new oil exploration. In November 2005, he voted against oil and gas leasing in the Alaskan Coastal Plain.  On April 20, 2007, rolling out his “Initiative to Combat Global Warming,” he told students in New Hampshire that “[i]t will take a grassroots effort to make America greener and end the tyranny of oil.”  Weeks later, he told a crowd: “The age of oil must end.” In his second Presidential Debate against John McCain, he stated: “[W]e can’t simply drill our way out of the problem. And we’re not going to be able to deal with the climate crisis if our only solution is to use more fossil fuels that create global warming.”

Now, with a crisis too opportune to waste, the President has chosen not to respond with a comprehensive proactive approach to America’s energy choices.  He could have encouraged safe new exploration by directing his Interior Secretary henceforth to administer and enforce competently the safety regulations already on the books, but which his Minerals Management Service ignored on his watch during the construction of Deepwater Horizon. He could reconsider opening ANWR to drilling, encourage efforts to expand clean-coal technology, and even order a prioritized review aimed at reviving the construction of nuclear power plants in America. (America has not built a new nuclear power plant in more than thirty years, even as France’s sixteen nuclear power plants generate nearly 80 percent of that country’s electricity.) Instead, this Administration, which knows that it can take ten years from licensing exploration until newly discovered oil reaches market, is prepared to risk laying the foundations for a future crisis by presently deterring new exploration and instead tilting disproportionately at windmills.

Dov Fischer is a legal affairs consultant and adjunct professor of the law of civil procedure and advanced torts. He was formerly Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review and writes extensively on political, cultural, and religious issues.  He is author of general _Sharon_’s War Against Time Magazine and blogs at