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A silver lining to the oil spill 2010-Jun-06 at 00:37 PDT

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.
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I find that it’s helpful, when one is stuck is a bad situation, to take as broad a perspective as possible and ask some simple questions: What’s the benefit of this?  What can we get out of it?  How will this bring long-term positive change?

Now, finding the best possible silver lining out of horrible situations does not mean that the positive outcomes make going through the tragedy worthwhile on balance.  In this case… yeah, the oil spill sucks.

But there’s really only one way we’re going to clean up the worst (by multiples) oil spill of all time, in less than a decade: nanotechnology and biotechnology.

I want to see Craig Venter inventing a new bacteria that eats oil better than ever before.  I want to see nanobots that travel through the water and gather oil and bring it back to a home ship.  I want to see research colleges stepping up.  I want to see us invent our way into speeding up the clean-up.

There is an opportunity to speed up both fields right now, and there’s no limit to the amount of millions of dollars that would be available right now from investors if someone took a serious run at this.

I’m betting that within a couple of years we’ll have some amazing breakthroughs to help the long-term clean-up effort… and we’ve definitely got years of that to come, followed by more years where we’re seeing a repopulation of the waters.

And, again, I wish we didn’t have to, but we do.


The gross but politically savvy thing to do 2010-Jun-04 at 01:11 PDT

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.
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Remember a few days ago when I strongly argued against firing Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior?

I still think that, on the merits alone, that’s the correct position.  Unfortunately, Washington political calculations don’t always follow the simple merits of a case.  At this point, just to give the impression of doing something, it might be the right political decision to sacrifice Secretary Salazar and make a change, even though nothing that has happened is his fault.

We also have the opportunity to resuscitate one of the early Obama cabinet picks who got derailed eighteen months ago due to some minor tax issues.  You know who would look like a real get-things-done type of guy?  Former Sen. Tom Daschle.  And you know who else would look good?  Gov. Bill Richardson.

Take your pick… the thing about this job is that whoever has it has the opportunity to be in the public spotlight for many years, because they’ll be running the cleanup job… and that’s going to take years.  I’d really like to see one of these two guys taking on a national role like this.

Does this seem cynical?  Yeah, it probably is.  But sometimes that’s what you do in Washington.  We’re all grown-ups… we can take it.

The oil spill is not Ken Salazar’s or Barack Obama’s fault 2010-May-30 at 14:25 PDT

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.
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Time for Salazar to go?, by Mark Hertsgaard, 27-May-2010

No, it’s not.  And this accident is not the President’s fault.  And there’s nothing he could have done to prevent it.  And there’s nothing the government could have done to stop the flow of oil by now.  This is an unprecedented disaster — one mile below sea level — and there is no known technology to deal with it, so engineers are inventing solutions right now.  It sucks, but that’s the situation.  BP and Halliburton screwed up in terms of building the well, they didn’t have the kind of mission-critical safeguards they should have had, and it led to a total systems failure.  My only complaint here is in terms of BP’s own processes to ensure that this kind of failure would never, ever, ever happen, which just weren’t nearly good enough.

And the only way that government regulators ever learn about these kinds of problems is in a reactive way, through some sort of systems failure.  It seems to me that those who think otherwise are unfamiliar with culture and structure in large organizations.  The bad hand we all got dealt is that, in this case, the level of failure that regulators could learn from wasn’t much smaller.  With a partial failure, for instance, we would have been able to change the inspection regime to make sure that something this big would never happen.  Unfortunately, the first failure was the biggest possible one.

We’ve seen this movie before with Obama. When Wall Street nearly crashed the global economy, Obama responded by listening to advisers—notably chief White House economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—whose sympathies lay with the megabanks that gamed the system rather than with the ordinary Americans who paid the price in the form of unemployment slips and foreclosure notices. The bailout plan Obama ended up backing was a great deal for Wall Street, a terrible deal for Main Street. What’s more, the president allowed himself to be seen during the bank bailout drama as taking the side of the villains rather than the victims—a damaging and unnecessary political choice.

Now, Obama is in danger of making the same mistake with the BP oil disaster. Substitute Salazar for Geithner, substitute continued offshore oil drilling after the worst environmental disaster in history for continued lax banking regulation after the worst financial breakdown in decades, and the parallel is complete. In his final remark of the press conference, Obama drew the parallel himself, saying, “As in the financial markets, when big crises happen, it forces us to do some soul-searching.” Obama signaled today he wants to look tough on BP and demand exemplary behavior from the oil industry in general. But credibly standing up to Big Oil is difficult when your administration’s point man on the issue has long been the industry’s chief cheerleader and shows few signs of changing his views. If Obama truly wants to chart a new course in dealing with the BP disaster and accelerating America’s transition to a clean energy future, he should start by requesting Ken Salazar’s resignation.

The parallels being drawn in these last two paragraphs between the financial crisis and this crisis are so distorted as to be laughable.  The assumptions are silly, and then the comparisons made between those silly assumptions and this situation stretch credulity.  Calling Salazar “the [oil] industry’s biggest cheerleader”? C’mon.

No one is happy about this, and this kind of knee-jerk search for the guilty is what I’d expect from both the extreme left- and right-wing publications (such as The Nation), but a moderate point of view allows us calmly to realize that we’re just in uncharted territory here, and we’re making it up as we go.

Is this a wake-up call about alternative energy sources?  I mean, sure, whatever.  There was already enough profit motive behind moving to renewable energy (particularly solar) before this incident to have it developing as quickly as it could.  It won’t come any sooner after this than it otherwise would have.  It’s not about government investment in it, it’s about private investment and research, and it’s coming right on time, and much faster than most people realize.

President Obama loses exactly none of my support around this issue.  He’s as frustrated and pissed as all of us are.  If there was a reasonable solution that involved using the U.S. Navy Submarine fleet, or divers, or sinking a decommissioned ship over the hole, or detonating a mine down there, or anything that the military could do, it would have been done already.  There’s nothing more that he can personally do… it’s up to the experts and the engineers now.  And they’re doing everything they can think of.