Federalism and the Gulf Oil Spill

Disasters always seem to highlight some of the difficulties inherent in our noncentralized form of American federalism.  As we commemorate the first anniversary of the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon, I thought it might be important to revisit some of the federalism issues that affected the response to the Gulf oil spill. The major issues revolved around lack of familiarity with oil spill policy jurisdiction, differing government objectives in the aftermath of the blowout, and political positioning.

Federalism, Planning , the Unified Command and The Clean-up

One major intergovernmental controversy involved control over the clean up in the immediate aftermath of the blowout.  State and local officials argued that the lines of authority were blurred between the BP response team and the Coast Guard.  Local officials felt the system was too top heavy, resulting in sluggish response times to requests and the impression that no one was in charge.  Both state and local officials claimed that the response should operate under the assumption of spend first and argue over reimbursement later. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco gave voice to this sentiment when she declared that states should  “act and send them the bill and fight over it later”.

Part of the problem was that state and local officials were more accustomed to operating under the federal legislation responding to natural disasters such as hurricanes than regulations dealing with off-shore oil spills. Gulf state officials are used to operating under the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Act which covers natural disasters such as hurricanes. Under this federal legislation governors request help from the federal government but the states retain primary control over the effort with FEMA assisting them. The Gulf Oil Spill was covered by the National Contingency Plan (NCP) which gives the federal government the primary responsibility for responding to the crisis. Under this legislation the federal On-Scene Coordinator acts as the primary partner with states in a Unified Command structure. State and local governments cannot spend funds without the authorization from the On-Scene Coordinator. As a consequence there was a lot of conflict between governments because of an unfamiliarity with the NCP. Throughout the process there was very little role for local governments who felt they were being kept out of the decision making process.

Economic Development vs. Long-term Environmental Clean-up

The second conflict resulted from the tension between the economic development priorities of some Gulf states and the federal government’s focus on the long-term environmental consequences of the disaster. State governments, particularly Louisiana, were interested in quick action to protect their economies based on tourism, fishing and the oil industry (13.4% of Louisiana’s employment is oil-related). In a post-Katrina environment their attitude was do something first and worry about the consequences later. Conversely, the federal government was concerned that quick solutions might exacerbate the long-term environmental consequences of the oil spill.  Needless to say, the conflict over economics also extended to the federal government’s moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf which state and local governments claimed would lead to job losses for their constituencies.

There was particular conflict over Louisiana’s plan to build sand berms and rock barriers to prevent oil from reaching its shores. On the one hand the state viewed their construction as a job creation tool. However, they sought to use the oil spill as a reason to begin construction of permanent berms and barriers which were part of the state’s long-term plans to address coastal restoration. For policy wonks this was a classic example of Kingdon’s policy streams where an existing solution (berms) is attached to a focusing event (oil spill) to achieve political objectives. The federal government was less sanguine concerning the construction of the berms which led to political struggle between the levels of government.

Federalism and Politics

Finally, good old-fashioned political posturing accounted for some of the conflict between governors and the federal government. Bobby Jindal was elected governor in post-Katrina Louisiana partly on his claim that he had the background to competently address natural disasters. His assertiveness on behalf of the state was an achievement heading into his 2011 reelection campaign. It should also be noted that all five Gulf states had Republican governors (Jindal, Charlie Crist – Florida, Haley Barbour – Mississippi, Bob Riley – Alabama, Rick Perry – Texas) who had no incentive to make the Obama administration look good, particularly since three of them (Barbour, Crist and Jindal) were potential presidential candidates at the time.

Models of Federalism

The intergovernmental problems related to the Gulf spill were in many ways the result of conflicting jurisdictional priorities that are endemic to our federal system. State and local governments, responsive to their electoral constituencies, were focused on ensuring the economic livelihoods of their citizens. Federal officials were responding to a national emergency and were focused on the long-term consequences of their actions as opposed to their immediate impact. In the final analysis the response to the Gulf Oil Spill could be considered an example of cooperative federalism from the vantage point of the Obama Administration while state and local governments perceived it as top-heavy coercive federalism.


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