President Barack Obama needs to use his swing through the Gulf Coast that starts today to bring more money, order and transparency to the BP cleanup effort. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana need ready access to sizable amounts of cash. The federal response needs greater direction and urgency. And BP must be made more responsive to the American people, particularly to residents along the gulf whose livelihoods are being destroyed.
BP continues to withhold much of the money states and communities need to respond quickly to the fast-moving oil. The $58 million given to Florida so far does not begin to help the state deploy the resources necessary or to properly market the unspoiled beaches to visitors. Florida Sen. George LeMieux asked BP on May 18 to create a $1 billion revolving fund that the gulf states could tap. Still no word from BP. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum echoed the request last week, asking BP to put billions of dollars into escrow. Access to a large chunk of money is the only way states will have the flexibility to respond to a growing disaster the company acknowledges will continue for months. BP could never run its own company without financial certainty, and the families and communities the company hurt deserve the same consideration. BP did commit $10 million on Friday to the Florida Institute of Oceanography to track the oil and assess its impact. That's enough to get started, but far short of the $100 million sought for a long-term effort.
The federal government has spent more energy in the past two weeks on distancing itself from BP than on making the lumbering response effort more cohesive. Obama does not need to talk tough, but the government needs to play tougher with BP. Federal responders also have been slow in addressing the states' concerns.
The government has assembled an armada of privately owned boats to help with the cleanup — three times the number Britain used in the Dunkirk evacuation. But they are deployed poorly and many lack the equipment to do much good. Federal officials still are not up to speed in tracking where the oil is headed, and they lost public confidence by offering four wildly varying estimates of how much oil is leaking. Obama's commander in this crisis, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, has a good grasp of the big picture, but he needs to light a match under the bureaucracy.
Allen criticized BP last week for being slow to process claims for lost income and summoned company officials to meet with Obama on Wednesday. But the best way for the federal government to make BP more responsive and transparent is to take over the claims process entirely. BP has stalled on every major point, from offering an estimate of the leaking oil to providing a live camera feed of the runaway well a mile beneath the gulf. Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink took a good step Friday by unveiling a new website that tracks how much the state is spending on the cleanup and is recovering from BP. But it's time for the federal government to force BP to open up. If the Justice Department's criminal investigation has not caught BP's attention, then the federal government should look at other ways to ratchet up the pressure.