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What role, if any, should government play in oil spill cleanup?

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WASHINGTON — As the public frustration and political pressures on the White House mount over the disastrous Gulf oil spill, more and more Americans are asking why the government doesn't take over the operation. The answer is quite clear: It doesn't have the expertise and probably won't acquire it. Like it or not, the nation is dependent on British Petroleum to cap its own well.

But then should not the government acquire the knowledge and ability to handle future blowouts?

Those familiar with the technology of offshore drilling say probably not. What is needed, they say, is a strengthening of the federal safety requirements demanded of the oil companies — new regulations and enhanced oversight of the entire offshore process to avoid such a calamity.

President Barack Obama already has ordered such a study, and Congress can be expected to follow suit. Its own investigation already has discovered BP apparently made decisions based on economy rather than safety, and federal regulators were lax in oversight.

There is some urgency in this considering there are thousands of offshore drilling operations and because of the national dependence on fossil fuel; there are likely to be more mishaps before alternatives are found.

"We're not going to stop drilling because of this spill," Sen. John Kerry told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast recently. Kerry, sponsor of the bill to develop alternative fuels, explained that the need for the oil produced by offshore drilling is huge and will be for at least two decades and until the country realizes that it must use the technology available to produce other sources of energy. He noted that one well out of 46,000 has failed.

"Under current law," Kerry said, "the president has the right to order drilling three miles off the coast of any state." Obama has delayed drilling off Alaska.

The political fallout for the president already is substantial and likely to worsen in the wake of severe damage to the fragile ecology of the Gulf states, particularly Louisiana, just now beginning to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina five years ago. The livelihoods of millions of Americans depend on the sea and marshlands along the coast and state, and local authorities have begun to heavily criticize the White House.

The oil spill could be Obama's Katrina. His approach to it has been compared to that of George W. Bush.

Rationally there is little the president could do outside angrily "jawboning" the oil company and the builder of the rig that exploded five weeks ago. But the "on-his-watch" factor gets more dangerous for Obama every day with increasing demands the government "should take over." It is a common phenomenon that covers not only man-made tragedies but also acts of God. A perceived inept response to a snowstorm has defeated more than one city administrator.

Even stalwart Democratic adviser James Carville, who now lives in Louisiana, has loudly criticized the White House, contending the government has been lax in its efforts to protect the environment.

This is an administration whose first 16 months in office have produced more activist legislation than nearly any president since Franklin Roosevelt. But critics contend, not without merit, that the president has been far more ambitious than he should have been, losing focus as he obsessed over his health care plan.

Clearly a growing number of Americans are unhappy over what they regard as a failure of Washington to deal with a variety of issues including immigration, energy, the continuing economic woes and the military situations in the Middle East. The tea party movement reflects this. It is an anti-incumbent mood pushed along by anger over a view of bureaucratic ineptness and uncaring and a daily stream of negative news.

Once the oil flow is stopped or diverted, the long post-mortem will begin. It isn't likely to result in the creation of an independent agency that would assume physical responsibility for handling a disaster. But it most surely will produce much stiffer safety requirements and far closer oversight.

That should have been the case from the beginning. It clearly wasn't.

E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.