Local candidates voice opinion on government’s role in oil spill

Published 7:19 am Wednesday, June 23, 2010

As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, politicians vying for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District find themselves dealing with what happened — and what needs to be done next.

The four candidates also are considering just what role the federal government should — and can — take in the crisis, which began with an April 20 explosion on a British Petroleum drill rig.

Tim Walz, the district’s Democratic incumbent, said he absolutely thinks there is a role for the federal government to step in, both to help with the spill itself and to put pressure on BP to take responsibility. He said critics who claim this represents too much government involvement in the private sector are off-base.

“That’s not socialism,” he said of the government taking a role with the spill. “That’s simply civilization.”

However, several challengers for Walz’s seat say there is a thin line the federal government walks during a situation like this.

Lars Johnson, who is a party-free candidate for the seat, said he’d be very careful to stay within the Constitution when dealing with such a disaster.

He said President Barack Obama — who last week pressured BP to set up a compensation fund for those affected — may have stepped past his bounds by aggressively going after the oil company.

“I’m not sure the president should be taking on a corporation,” Johnson said. “My impression is that he came across with rather strong tones. The last thing I want is for our president to come across in a bully’s tone.”

Republican challenger Randy Demmer said he thinks it boils down to inexperience.

“I think this particular administration simply isn’t used to reacting to a disaster,” he said. “If you don’t know what to do, the first thing you do is start pointing blame.”

Demmer said that doesn’t mean he thinks BP should be absolved from responsibility. Instead, he thinks there is a time for figuring out what happened and assigning blame, but that time is later.

“No. 1, we need to fix this oil spill. No. 2, we need to learn from it,” the Republican said. “A lot of political hay is being made right now.”

He added: “Quite frankly, I believe all efforts and energies should be going toward solving this disaster.”

Like Johnson and Demmer, Independent candidate Steven Wilson acknowledged there is a fine line between a government fulfilling its role and one going too far into the private sector.

He said if he was in Obama’s shoes, he would have had the same talk with BP about setting up a compensation fund. But he said he would have ultimately left any decision for BP and the overall market.

The candidate added, “Maybe that’s exactly what happened,” a reference to the closed-door meeting between the president and BP held shortly before the compensation fund was announced.

However, Wilson said of bigger importance to him is what can be learned from the oil spill, particularly in the realm of new energy.

Wilson said he would like to see the spill used as a platform to promote energy innovations, so that safer and cleaner methods might develop.

“Frankly, I think the answer to the country’s energy challenge is still out there,” the candidate said.

A historic disaster

The four candidates can all agree that the spill is a disaster of epic proportions.

Oil has been leaking since the drilling rig explosion killed 11 platform workers and opened up the hole.

The blown-out BP undersea well has already leaked more than 120 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, according to the most pessimistic U.S. government estimates. Oil has been washing up from Louisiana to Florida, killing birds and fish and coating marshes, wetlands and beaches. A pair of relief wells considered the best chance at a permanent fix won’t be completed until August.

“It’s just devastating,” Walz said. “This will change industries that have been (in the Gulf) basically forever.”

Because of the scope of the disaster, the candidates said it would be wise to get many different resources — including state and local governments, as well as volunteers and businesses — involved in the response.

“This is something that will affect Americans for decades,” Wilson said. “It’s an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ situation.”