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OUR VIEW: Obama's promises will be hard to keep

President Barack Obama went before the nation Tuesday night and made some extremely impressive promises.

He promised to restore the livelihood of Gulf Coast residents and the natural habitat. He said he would require BP to set aside funds to compensate those who suffered from the damage. He said he has assembled the best minds available on the crisis and that they’ve come up with a plan that will be implemented in the next few weeks that will capture 90 percent of the escaping oil. He also said he’s placed a moratorium on deepwater oil rigs, and that he is working to ensure this sort of disaster doesn’t repeat.

This came on the heels of a promise he made Monday in Alabama: “I am confident that we’re going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before.”

While you would expect the president to take the tact that everything will be better as soon as possible, some reality needs to set in.

This is, simply, the worst sea oil spill in history. Early on, both government and oil company experts badly underestimated how much oil was pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. If the flow can’t be shut off before the side wells are finished in August, the recovery time will be greatly extended. There’s a very real danger that for many of us, the Gulf Coast as we have known it will not be the same for the remainder of our lifetime.

And that’s a depressing thought, one that leads to anger and frustration. The great American blame game is in full play, with most of the darts being tossed in the direction of BP and the U.S. government, specifically its misfiring Minerals Management Service, an agency that has become this disaster’s Katrina-era FEMA.

In fact, there are some unnerving comparisons of the U.S. government’s response to the BP oil slick and its response to hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans.

In both cases, the government was slow to act and underestimated the damage and danger. In both cases, the president was slow to get on site and made bold promises. Obama, who promised Tuesday night to “do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy,” sounds similar to President George W. Bush’s words of “do whatever it takes” to help New Orleans fully recover. It’s a paradox of politics that Obama, as a U.S. senator, scoffed at Bush’s promise, then would utter nearly the same words.

New Orleans still hasn’t recovered 18 months into Obama’s administration. And there’s no silver bullet to fire out of Washington that will make the millions and millions of gallons of oil polluting the Gulf go away either.

While Obama promoted his desire for alternative fuel sources, the fact is that outside of nuclear power, there is not another source that is as energy dense as oil. More than that, hydrocarbons from oil permeate our culture and they’re in practically everything we use. They’re in the plastic bottles you drink out of, the trays you use to warm food in the microwave, and they’re in the microwave itself. There are few products on the market today that don’t have hydrocarbons in them. If every oil well magically shut down today, the world could not function. Oh, and that deepwater oil moratorium doesn’t apply to operations that have already been permitted.

Promises are a dangerous thing. Had regulators been on top of things, they might have shut the Deepwater Horizon rig before the explosion. There’s certainly mounting evidence that BP and government officials should have known there was a problem with it. Even at that, anytime you have equipment like this, even with a long record of no spills before April 20, catastrophe can strike, regardless of government pronouncement.

By the same token, the U.S. government can’t “guarantee” that BP will have to pay up every cent due those who have been affected. Obama noted that the settlements would be determined not by BP or the government, but by an “independent third party.” The arbiter would set the compensation levels, and the government would have no choice but to accept them.

Obama deserves a high mark for trying to reassure Americans that there are brighter days ahead, but he stands the chance of seeing an incomplete drop to a failing grade on execution of promises he may not be able to keep.