Obama and the Oil Spill

President Barack Obama, National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen, and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph look at the effect the BP oil spill has had on Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., May 28, 2010. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza), Image via the Official White House Flickr Photostream

I am angry about the oil spill, and unlike President Obama, I’ve been angry ever since it happened, on Earth Day– I didn’t have to be badgered by reporters into packing my angry eyes, just in case (Toy Story reference, heck yes). But more than just being angry, I want answers.

I’ve been annoyed with the right wing meme that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is “Obama’s Katrina.” But, if the problem with Bush’s handling of Katrina was that he downplayed the extent of the disaster, failed to make it a proper priority, kept incompetent people in charge of the recovery even after their incompetence was known, and failed to take responsibility for his administration’s role in the disaster, well then, I’m starting to think maybe this IS Obama’s Katrina after reading this piece, “The Spill, The Scandal, and the President,” from Rolling Stone. (Though I remain frustrated with the comparison, because obviously, Katrina involved a huge loss of human life and a huge amount of human suffering, and the response involved a heaping helping of racism.)  Because I know not everyone has time to sit down and read a 10 page piece, I thought I’d *highly encourage* you to check it out, while also hitting some of the high points here.  If you’ve been reading here for any length of time, you know I’m generally a big Obama fan. But I think he and his administration dropped the ball bigtime on this disaster.

Ways the Obama administration screwed up before the disaster (I’m paraphrasing unless material is actually quoted):

  • After a year in office, the Obama administration, under Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, has done nothing to truly address the lapses in regulation and oversight, corruption, and and negiligence that everyone knew were going on in the Minerals Management Service, which is responsible for overseeing the oil and gas industry.  Obama installed Salazar to help the Department of Interior “clean up it’s act,” and yet Salazar has allowed most of the same people to remain in their jobs and has doubled down on domestic drilling.  It’s one thing to say that Obama inherited a deeply corrupt and ineffective agency from the previous administration, and I’d even be willing to allow that it might take more than a year to reverse the most egregious practices and problems, however, the article makes pretty clear that there was very little effort at all made to even change things at Interior and the MMS specifically.
  • On the increase in drilling:

    Instead of putting the brakes on new offshore drilling, Salazar immediately throttled it up to record levels. Even though he had scrapped the Bush plan, Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease in the Gulf in his first year alone – an all-time high.

    Like me, you might wonder why the president who, during the campaign talked about how offshore drilling would do little to change gas prices or create true energy independence, would expand drilling. The article suggests that perhaps Obama intended to use expanded offshore drilling as a bargaining chip to gain votes for his climate bill, perhaps thinking short term environmental risks were worth long-term environmental gain, and failing to recognize just how serious those short term risks truly were. Dickinson notes a truly ironic statement that the president made in March: “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.  They are technologically very advanced.”

  • On the total lack of any real change:

    “Employees describe being in Interior – not just MMS, but the other agencies – as the third Bush term,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. “They’re working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?”

  • In addition to increasing drilling and allowing the MMS to continue its pattern of corruption and negligence, the Obama administration knew the risks of a potential catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf and failed to create any sort of plan to deal with such a catastrophe.  From the piece:

    In May 2000, an environmental assessment for deepwater drilling in the Gulf presciently warned that “spill responses may be complicated by the potential for very large magnitude spills (because of the high production rates associated with deepwater wells).” The report noted that the oil industry “has estimated worst-case spill volumes ranging from 5,000 to 116,000 barrels a day for 120 days,” and it even anticipated the underwater plumes of oil that are currently haunting the Gulf: “Oil released subsea (e.g., subsea blowout or pipeline leak) in these deepwater environments could remain submerged for some period of time and travel away from the spill site.” The report ominously concluded, “There are few practical spill-response options for dealing with submerged oil.”

  • Also from the piece: “a test funded by MMS had found that blowout preventers failed 28 percent of the time,” as is the case with the BP catastrophe. Later, the piece notes that “BP shaved $500,000 off its overhead by deploying a blowout preventer without a remote-control trigger — a failsafe measure required in many countries but not mandated by MMS, thanks to intense industry lobbying.”
  • Most depressing, the piece basically convinced me that I’d have to do more thorough paperwork to get permission to renovate my house than BP had to do in order to set up drilling operations at the Deepwater Horizon. The article points out that while the Bush administration started the practice of allowing oil companies themselves to decide whether or not their operations would pose a threat to the environment or public health (a practice known as a “categorical exclusion”), this continued under the Obama administration, despite the fact that the Department of the Interior’s “own handbook on categorical exclusions…bars their issuance for offshore projects in ‘relatively untested deep water’ or ‘utilizing new or unusual technology’ –standards…’plainly pertinent’ for BP’s rig”:

    Nowhere was the absurdity of the policy more evident than in the application that BP submitted for its Deepwater Horizon well only two months after Obama took office. BP claims that a spill is “unlikely” and states that it anticipates “no adverse impacts” to endangered wildlife or fisheries. Should a spill occur, it says, “no significant adverse impacts are expected” for the region’s beaches, wetlands and coastal nesting birds. The company, noting that such elements are “not required” as part of the application, contains no scenario for a potential blowout, and no site-specific plan to respond to a spill. Instead, it cites an Oil
    Spill Response Plan that it had prepared for the entire Gulf region. Among the sensitive species BP anticipates protecting in the semitropical Gulf? “Walruses” and other cold-water mammals, including sea otters and sea lions. The mistake appears to be the result of a sloppy cut-and-paste job from BP’s drilling plans for the Arctic. Even worse: Among the “primary equipment providers” for “rapid deployment of spill response resources,” BP inexplicably provides the Web address of a Japanese home-shopping network. Such glaring errors expose the 582-page response “plan” as nothing more than a paperwork exercise. (emphasis mine)

    Instead of actually reading and rejecting such a plainly ridiculous document, in April of last year, Obama’s Department of Interior gave BP the go-ahead for drilling without requiring a comprehensive environmental review.

Ways the Obama administration has bungled response TO the disaster:

  • The article makes explicit that from the beginning, the administration has made an effort to downplay the severity of the spill.  Dickinson mentions footage of the initial “war room” conference at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and describes numbers written on a whiteboard in the conference room:

    Written on a whiteboard at the front of the room is the government’s initial, worst-case estimate of the size of the spill. While the figure is dramatically higher than any official estimate issued by BP or the government, it is in line with the high-end calculations by scientists who have monitored the spill.

    “Estm: 64k – 110k bbls/Day.” The equivalent of up to three Exxon Valdez spills gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every week.

    Damningly, the whiteboard also documents the disconnect between what the government suspected to be the magnitude of the disaster and the far lower estimates it was feeding to the public. Written below the federal estimate are the words, “300,000 gal/day reported on CNN.”

    Just another example of an administration that promised transparency willfully misleading the public on a very important issue.

  • The article also makes clear that the government delayed in declaring the disaster “an ‘Oil Spill of National Significance’ — the designation required to draw on regional resources and to appoint an incident commander to coordinate a federal response,” waiting a full week to make that call, a delay that allowed the problem to worsen exponentially.
  • And the administration tried to pass the buck to BP.  While the President and his press secretary repeatedly claimed in press conferences that cleanup was BP’s responsibility, Dickinson notes:

    The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan – the federal regulations that lay out the command- and-control responsibilities for cleaning up an oil spill – makes clear that an oil company
    like BP cannot be left in charge of such a serious disaster. The plan plainly states that the government must “direct all federal, state or private actions” to clean up a spill “where a discharge or threat of discharge poses a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States.”

  • And, while allowing BP to manage the cleanup, the Obama administration may have allowed BP to ultimately prolong and make cleanup more difficult:

    On May 14th, two days after the first video of the gusher was released, the government allowed BP to apply a toxic dispersant that is banned in England at the source of the leak – an unprecedented practice in the deep ocean. “The effort should be in recovering the oil, not making it more difficult to recover by dispersing it,” says Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer and former NOAA chief scientist who helped the agency confront the world’s worst-ever oil spill in the Persian Gulf after the first Iraq War. The chemical assault appeared geared, she says, “to improving the appearance of the problem rather than solving the problem.”

    Earle seems to know what she’s talking about! Let’s get her involved in the cleanup solution!

Ways the solutions proposed by the Obama administration aren’t solutions at all:

  • Obama has announced a temporary ‘moratorium’ on offshore drilling.  This is simply a PR tactic, as the article reveals:

    the ‘moratoriu'” on drilling announced by the president does little to prevent  future disasters. The ban halts exploratory drilling at only 33 deepwater operations, shutting  down less than one percent of the total wells in the Gulf. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the  Cabinet-level official appointed by Obama to rein in the oil industry, boasts that ‘the moratorium is not a moratorium that will affect production’ – which continues at 5,106 wells in the Gulf, including 591 in deep water.

  • Meanwhile, BP, whom we know know is probably the least safety-conscious of any oil company (since 2007, BP has received 760 citations for “egregious and willful” safety violations, while all other oil companies combined have received a whopping total of 1), continues drilling operations at their other rig, BP Atlantis.  From the piece:

    Capable of drawing 200,000 barrels a day from the seafloor, Atlantis is located only 150 miles off the coast of Louisiana, in waters nearly 2,000 feet deeper than BP drilled at Deepwater Horizon. According to congressional documents, the platform lacks required engineering certification for as much as 90 percent of its subsea components – a flaw that internal BP documents reveal could lead to “catastrophic” errors.

What I want to see happen:

  • Ken Salazar should be fired.  His replacement should take seriously a reform effort for the MMS.
  • The application process for permission to operate an offshore rig should be made more rigorous.  Companies should be required to have actual, actionable plans for an emergency, and an environmental review should be performed to ensure these plans’ efficacy.
  • At the very least, ALL BP drilling should be suspended until the company presents proper paperwork, especially on the BP Atlantis. I’d prefer for all offshore drilling, period, to be suspended pending more thorough review and inspection.
  • The US Government should, as required by law, take responsibility for the cleanup, while fining BP to the fullest extent possible to pay for the cleanup.
  • Congress should pass a comprehensive climate bill which involves strict regulation of companies who cause catastrophes like the Massey mine collapse and the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, while recommitting resources to alternative energy sources and encouraging each and every American to make a personal effort to decrease their dependence on oil, natural gas, and coal.
  • Criminal charges should be filed against people at BP wherever possible, and against any regulator who knowingly allowed dangerous operations to continue.

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