President Bush, four days after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, said he was getting "conflicting reports" on the tragedy that had taken place in Prince William Sound off Valdez, Alaska. If he was, it's because he was getting his reports from the wrong people.

The governor of Alaska could have told him. The mayor of Valdez could have told him. The fishermen who work the waters of Prince William Sound could have told him. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation could have told him. The guess here is that he was getting his reports from the oil company that had blown it, the Coast Guard that had blown it and the other oil companies whose top priority is getting permission to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.This is not to say there were no conflicting reports. As in any catastrophe, even those saintly purveyors of the truth, the media, get confused. A barrel is not a gallon. These conflicts on statistics didn't matter. What mattered was that there was a disaster of the first magnitude and the reaction to it was inexcusably bad.

For the two days when it was calm, Exxon didn't have the equipment it had promised to have on hand to contain the spill. They didn't begin to spread booms around the spill for 10 hours. They had this marvelous chemical, Corexit (nice name), that would disperse the oil. They knew it was marvelous because they made it themselves.

It didn't work, because it was too calm. It takes wave action to disperse the chemical. The next thing we heard was that it was too rough. It went from too calm to too rough without ever passing through reasonable or even possible. The booms broke loose, and 240,000 barrels of oil are spread over miles and miles of shoreline.

A disaster area it is, but U.S. taxpayers shouldn't underwrite a dime of it. This was no drought or flood or hurricane or tornado. This was a man-made disaster, and the people who made it should pay for it. The Trans Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act established a fund for paying the cost of spills. No oil shipper is liable for more than $100 million - unless it is negligent.

After four days, President Bush created the appearance of doing something by sending Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly and Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost up to Alaska to look. He had a photo opportunity of the team and himself looking at a map of Alaska. Looking is not doing. Probably he will do nothing.

We hold still to the promises we know won't be kept for one reason - money. Oil pays for Alaska's government. Big oil makes big political contributions. In any showdown between money and jobs on one side and the environment on the other, the environment always loses.