Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Oil Spills, Oil Producers & Governments

The accident in the gulf is a pretty ugly sight. I'm sure there is no person alive who actually likes the accident and the aftermath, which of course continues.

Today you can read news reports of our political leaders holding hearings to point fingers and hold the culprit's feet to the fire. And, of course, you may have read or heard the President castigating the oil producers and promising to kick the appropriate butts.

You can also read reports that assert British Petroleum made numerous bad decisions that led to the accident, and which were made in an effort to save some costs and improve profits. Even if there is some truth to such allegations, there may be more involved in terms of the incentives and the tradeoffs than meets the eye.

I make this last assertion myself because I'm come to believe government policy is almost always involved, and it is almost always well hidden from us, unless we are able to spend much time reading statutes, regulations, and executive orders.

STEVEN HORWITZ has written about just one example related to this accident:
"The Jones Act is actually section 27 of the MMA and requires 'that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents.' This, of course, includes the Gulf of Mexico. Thus any attempt to move equipment from one U.S. port to another for the purpose of either stopping or cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon leak must involve U.S. ships, fully constructed in the U.S., etc..

Of course in a world of globalized trade few such ships exist. In fact, a number of foreign-constructed or crewed ships are in U.S ports at the moment and could easily transport oil sucking equipment or more booms to the Gulf, but the Jones Act prevents them from doing so. Like the school buses that sat in a parking lot while folks were stranded during Hurricane Katrina, those non-U.S. ships and their equipment are sitting idle while an environmental disaster unfolds."
Professor Horwitz mentions the buses and Katrina because he wants to point out that the Jones Act was apparently waived two days after the hurricane. I haven't read the Jones Act, so I am not aware of whether the Act itself includes conditions by which it might be waived. Perhaps it does. Or, perhaps Congress must act to repeal the Act, something suggested by Professor Horwitz, and something I agree would be a good idea. In any case, Professor Horwitz does point out that apparently the President does not agree that Act should be waived or repealed since he writes: "Meanwhile, President Obama and others continue to insist that such a blanket waiver is 'not needed at this time.'"

So, who might benefit from not waiving or repealing the Jones Act? My guess would be some union or unions, and that is the view of Professor Horwitz as well. If this seems plausible, then it should also seem plausible to you that the President is making political calculations when he decides to trade off this against that. Not too surprising to me, and not really unlike the tradeoffs some assert BP made and should not have made.

It seems to me there are other aspects of this accident and the aftermath that involve government policies, regulations, and actions that are hidden from our easy view. I'm always suspicious this might be the case when our elected leaders in Washington rush to microphones and hearings to point fingers. I will try to add at least one or two additional illustrations in the next day or two.

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