Put America's Unemployed Youth to Work Cleaning Up the Oil Spill

a Brown Pelican gets BP oil washed offAs the summer begins, there are millions of unemployed young Americans whose parents would love for them to get out of the house and do something. And while there doesn't seem to be much that the government can do stop the oil from leaking, it surely ought to take command of the cleanup.

The government could arrange to transport many of those unemployed teens to the coasts of Louisiana and Florida, put them up in local hotels, and get them to work cleaning oil off of beaches -- then send the bill to BP (BP) to pay for it all.

It's hard to know how good a job BP is doing, but the British energy company claims to have hired 20,000 people to help set booms to keep oil from coming ashore, according to The Associated Press. Many people have moved to staging areas along the coast in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. But the demand for those jobs exceeds the supply. In Pensacola, Fla., 4,000 people showed up at recruiting events to apply for 500 potential cleanup jobs, according to AP.

Teenage Unemployment at 26%

Is it naive to assume that there would be enough cleanup jobs for America's young workers to perform? The teenage unemployment rate this summer is 26% according to CBS News. And The New York Times reports the number of unemployed teenagers is in the millions.

Yet the images of oil-soaked pelicans and globs of sludge washing up on beaches suggest that there's a big need for help cleaning up, and other reports show that vast stretches of oiled beaches have no cleanup crews in sight. All those unemployed teenagers represent a lot of untapped human energy. While some might prefer to spend their summer at the mall or sitting at home playing video games, their parents would no doubt be happy to have them doing something more productive, and many teens are desperate to find work.

Before Teenagers Can Help Clean Up BP's Mess

So why not put the two together? Two reasons: First, BP is in charge of cleaning up the oil spill, and its financial incentive is to keep the costs as low as possible. Therefore, it doesn't want to spend any more money than it thinks it can get away with.

If we haven't yet learned that blind faith in an unfettered private sector is bad policy, it's not too late to do so now. The simple reality is that the American people -- whose wishes are supposed to be served by their government -- care much more about the people and wildlife hammered by this crisis than does BP.

To resolve that disconnect, the Obama administration needs to step in and take control of the cleanup. Admittedly it would be ideal if the U.S. could also cut off the flow of oil from that well -- but this does not appear to be something the government has the technical ability to accomplish. However, there's no reason that it couldn't manage the cleanup and send a bill to BP.

Training and Protective Gear

Second, teenagers lack the know-how to remove oil from birds and beaches. The U.S. should give these teenagers such training -- as well as the proper protective gear -- and put them to work along the coastline from Louisiana to Florida. It should also monitor their health to make sure they don't get sick.

Someone smarter than I would need to figure out how many people are needed for each mile of shoreline. They would also need to solve the logistics of transporting these students to the sites, feeding them, finding places for them to live and paying them. If there aren't enough private accommodations, the U.S. should provide these teens temporary housing.

Moreover, I think the government should require BP to pay for all this instead of siphoning its cash to an advertising campaign to buff its image. (BP has already spent $75 million on advertising in Florida and Louisiana since the oil spill.)

While BP's total cleanup costs will be many times higher -- Credit Suisse estimates that between cleanup costs and legal claims BP's tab could tip $37 billion -- it seems to me that paying unemployed teenagers to help clean up BP's mess would be a far more productive use of its money than putting on hollow TV advertisements that no one believes anyway.

Teaching BP's Shareholders to Care About Safety

Despite all the challenges to making this idea work, the simple reality is that those shorelines will need cleaning and those teenagers could help. Moreover, it's clear that we can't trust BP to do the right thing.

But the government -- perhaps by tapping BP shareholders' $10.8 billion in 2009 dividends to pay for their contribution to the costs of this disaster -- could. And in so doing, the government could punish those shareholders for turning a blind eye to BP's miserable safety record, while it empowers some of America's teenagers to help solve this disaster -- rather than helplessly watching it unfold on their iPhones.
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