Representative Joe Barton has been getting the heat lately due to his comments that BP was the target of a shakedown by the Obama administration, a charge that is not particularly unwarranted. Granted, being a Republican from Texas gives you a fair amount of leeway when it comes to defending Big Oil, but it's just bad politics--especially for the image of the national party--to do as such.
That said, David Brooks said in an NPR interview that Barton's comments weren't all that far off base--or, at the very least, they contained a "kernel of truth." Essentially, he stated that there is already a legal framework for payouts in place, so all this is pure political posturing, and, in fact, this escrow fund may not do anything at all since it will gum up the established claims process.
I'm not sure I agree, of course; I don't know enough of the details of the escrow fund to say. But as long as these are funds that are simply put in place for the eventual payouts, I don't see a problem. It's painless for BP--they're going to be paying anyway, so why not make some good PR out of the deal?--and it's good for Obama, since it gives something concrete to point at (since there is increasing worry within his administration that he really hasn't done enough.) As long as this is done properly I don't think there's an issue, but on the other hand it seems an empty gesture.
Of course, even if Barton feels that there were some unjustified strongarming involved--why do it now? If this were Jesse Jackson or the pharmaceutical companies, you could write it all off as a safe-seat representative scoring some political points for an interest group and be done with it. But I don't think there is any interest group that is sympathetic to BP that would be worth defending.
The second point is this column from the Straight Dope--hardly an academic source, but they've been doing this mythbusting stuff before Snopes and Jamie Hyneman were even created, so I more or less trust them. Basically, oil cleans itself up--it's quite biodegradable, and (as the column notes) areas where no one cleaned roughly equaled areas where workers spent time cleaning--i.e., the natural processes of nature did just as good a job as individuals. Of course, this doesn't mean oil spills are good--once they get under rocks and (urp) animal's stomachs, the natural process stops and the green hand of human involvement is required. And--this surprised me-- 47% of the oil in the ocean is from "natural oil seeps" where no human action was involved. (Granted, it's spread out and thus less concentrated--and thus less dangerous--that what happens when a tanker capsizes or a well blows up. But, still, that's an alarming statistic.) And different areas of the world are better at it than others, and some don't biodegrade at all without help. Still, it's a little heartening to know that while the oil spill is a full-stop disaster, it could be worse, and we need all the good news we can get.