The Obama administration has lacked vision and urgency in responding to the worst environmental disaster it has faced. The oil gushing from the destroyed rig into the Gulf of Mexico has overwhelmed the industry and local governments, and only Washington can muster the resources to meet such an ominous threat to the entire coast. Yet the president did not send his top environmental aides and mobilize the Navy and Air Force until Friday — after the giant slick already had reached the fragile marshes and shorelines of the Mississippi Delta. The federal response must match the magnitude of the threat of environmental and economic calamity that stretches from Louisiana to Florida.
Government officials on Friday complained about the slow initial response to last week's deadly explosion by BP, which leased the rig Deepwater Horizon. There will be plenty of time to point fingers. All need to work now in a spirit of cooperation with federal and state responders to contain the oil slick and to plug the cracked wellhead nearly a mile beneath the surface on the sea floor. Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday declared a state of emergency for six Panhandle counties, and high winds and strong seas could push the slick to Pensacola's beaches by Sunday night.
Now the Obama administration needs to remain focused, move quickly to try to limit the damage and prepare to aid communities from the Louisiana fishing towns to the Florida beaches. This is going to be a long-term operation, with projections that it may take months to slow the leak. The crisis will evolve — 10 days after the explosion, officials could still only estimate that 210,000 gallons of crude a day, five times the original figure, are pouring into the gulf. But it should be clear that sending nonprofit groups to the coast with dishwashing soap to scrub oil-covered animals is helpful but hardly enough.
President Barack Obama met U2's Bono in the Oval Office on Friday when he should have been headed to the Gulf Coast. The president did order a freeze on new offshore drilling leases until investigators determine what caused the oil rig explosion and the massive spill and propose safety improvements. But in the long term, the president should retreat from his plan to expand drilling in gulf waters, which includes reducing the buffer off Florida's west coast from the current 235 miles to 125 miles. As this disaster illustrates, the risk simply outweighs the potential for more oil and financial windfalls for government.
Obama assured the Gulf Coast on Friday that the federal government will meet the challenge. His predecessor made similar declarations in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and those proved to be hollow promises. This president does not want to make the same mistake in meeting the biggest environmental emergency of his administration.