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Government in the dock ; Washington's lack of oversight gives it a big share of blame for oil leak

What do the stockholders of BP and the fishermen of the Gulf Coast have in common?

A futile wish that the federal government had refused to issue a permit for the well that the Deepwater Horizon was drilling on April 20 when the rig blew up, killing 11 workers and beginning what has now been two months of an unrelenting flow of black goo.

Or, failing that, a wistful image of a real disaster plan, sharpened by federal or state experts, that might have ended the leak after a few days, or even hours, instead of the weeks and months we're all facing now.

Businesses the world over complain about how much government regulation can harm them. And, sometimes, it does.

But sometimes it can save their bacon.

BP Chairman Tony Hayward was already in enough trouble when he apologized at length to a House committee last week. So he did not belabor the fact that the design of the well being drilled by contractors at BP's behest had been approved by the federal Minerals Management Service.

If he wasn't trying to just get through the experience without further damage, having already promised President Obama a $20 billion down payment on the eventual compensation for all the damage caused by the spill, Hayward might have pressed the point.

He might have argued that his company -- like every other private business -- exists to make money for its owners and/or stockholders. In BP's case, the means to that end is finding, shipping, processing and selling petroleum products.

The job of doing all that can reasonably be done to see that the public is kept safe, that the environment is not devastated, that the livelihoods of millions of innocent bystanders are not ruined, was not his. It is the government's.

And thus, Hayward might well have come back on the House members, it was the government, as structured, funded and overseen by his inquisitors, that was at least as much to blame as he for the ongoing disaster.

Had the government done its job, the BP company wouldn't have lost billions of dollars in value, oil rig workers and shrimp boat captains wouldn't be out of work and the Gulf Coast wouldn't be faced with the choice of economic ruin by oil drilling or by lack of oil drilling.

Now, because government agencies didn't do their job, Hayward is not the only person in danger of losing his. Because the Mineral Management Service couldn't be bothered, BP may not be able to pay dividends or have its stock prop up the many retirement funds it helps to support on both sides of the Atlantic.

It has all happened before. Lack of oversight created the atmosphere in which companies such as Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, AIG and Lehman Brothers destroyed themselves, eliminated jobs, ruined investors and caused horrible ripples across the whole economy.

On a day-to-day basis, corporations will always try to get by with a minimum of expense for a maximum of profit. But, on the wider perspective, the kind of view that people like Hayward -- and Obama -- should have, a proper regulatory structure is not a business killer. It is a business saver.

And real business leaders should be at the head of the line in demanding that we have one.

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