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Back in April, President Obama said, "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn't come from the oil rigs, they came from the refineries onshore."
I agreed with the President when he said these words. I also thought oil rigs were technologically advanced, safe, and if an accident did occur, the government and the oil companies could quickly rectify the situation. I assumed they were competent, had learned from past problems, and the risks were manageable.
Big mistake. Epic. I was wrong. It turns out nobody knows how to deal with a deep-sea oil leak. Nobody. It's incredible to me that it could be so, but we're all seeing it play out right in front of our eyes.
I should know better by now than to ever assume the government is competent at anything, but the oil companies, in this case BP, it's in their economic interest to be competent, to have contingency plans in place for potential disasters. Big oil companies make tons of money doing their jobs competently. They don't want disasters to happen. That is very bad for them. This oil spill in the Gulf may bankrupt BP, not that I really care about that. If they go bankrupt, so be it. Let's bleed them dry. They richly deserve it, but you'd think BP would care about BP going bankrupt, and they would take all necessary safety precautions to insure that would never happen.
But they didn't.
And the government watchdog, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), a division of the Department of the Interior, was completely asleep at the switch. They served as little more than a rubber stamp for the oil companies. That's how it was during the Bush years, and that's how it is in the Obama years. Obama came into office and immediately appointed Ken Salazar as the head of the Interior Department. Salazar was supposed to clean up the cozy and corrupt relationship between MMS and Big Oil.
But he didn't.
Instead, the rubber stamp MMS kept right on rubber stamping. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the one that exploded, sank, and caused the worst oil-related environmental disaster in American history (I think we're up to the equivalent of eight Exxon Valdez's and counting), was put into production on Salazar's watch, on Obama's watch.
A Rolling Stone expose describes the situation. I wouldn't normally use Rolling Stone as a source, because they have their own agenda and are generally a bunch of drama queens, but there is too much in this story that rings true. It illustrates how our government was saying one thing publicly, but in reality doing something entirely different:
"The oil companies were running MMS during those [Bush] years," Bobby Maxwell, a former top auditor with the agency, told Rolling Stone last year. "Whatever they wanted, they got. Nothing was being enforced across the board at MMS."
Salazar himself has worked hard to foster the impression that the "prior administration" is to blame for the catastrophe. In reality, though, the Obama administration was fully aware from the outset of the need to correct the lapses at MMS that led directly to the disaster in the Gulf. In fact, Obama specifically nominated Salazar – his "great" and "dear" friend – to force the department to "clean up its act." For too long, Obama declared, Interior has been "seen as an appendage of commercial interests" rather than serving the people. "That's going to change under Ken Salazar."
Speaking to Rolling Stone in March 2009, the secretary underscored his commitment to reform. "We have embarked on an ambitious agenda to clean up the mess," he insisted. "We have the inspector general involved with us in a preventive mode so that the department doesn't commit the same mistakes of the past." The crackdown, he added, "goes beyond just codes of ethics."
Except that it didn't. Salazar did little to tamp down on the lawlessness at MMS, beyond referring a few employees for criminal prosecution and ending a Bush-era program that allowed oil companies to make their "royalty" payments – the amount they owe taxpayers for extracting a scarce public resource – not in cash but in crude. And 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. The aggressive leasing came as no surprise, given Salazar's track record. "This guy has a long, long history of promoting offshore oil drilling – that's his thing," says Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "He's got a highly specific soft spot for offshore oil drilling." As a senator, Salazar not only steered passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened 8 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, he even criticized President Bush for not forcing oil companies to develop existing leases faster.
Salazar was far less aggressive, however, when it came to making good on his promise to fix MMS. Though he criticized the actions of "a few rotten apples" at the agency, he left long-serving lackeys of the oil industry in charge. "The people that are ethically challenged are the career managers, the people who come up through the ranks," says a marine biologist who left the agency over the way science was tampered with by top officials. "In order to get promoted at MMS, you better get invested in this pro-development oil culture."
So much for cleaning up MMS. It didn't happen.
It also turns out that the MMS was well aware there was no way to deal with a deep-water leak.......and everybody just went ahead anyway. Listen to this prophetic passage:
MMS has fully understood the worst-case scenarios for deep-sea oil blowouts for more than a decade. 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."
That same month, an MMS research document developed with deepwater drillers – including the company then known as BP Amoco – warned that such a spill could spell the end for offshore operations. The industry could "ill afford a deepwater blowout," the document cautions, adding that "no single company has the solution" to such a catastrophe
Nobody cared during the Bush years. Nobody cared in the Obama years. It seems everyone kept their fingers crossed and hoped a disaster wouldn't happen. That IS the audacity of hope. Way too audacious.
The rubber stamp nature of the MMS is quite evident in BP's bogus paperwork for the Deepwater Horizon oil 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. "It was clear that nobody read it," says Ruch, who represents government scientists.
"This response plan is not worth the paper it is written on," said Rick Steiner, a retired professor of marine science at the University of Alaska who helped lead the scientific response to the Valdez disaster. "Incredibly, this voluminous document never once discusses how to stop a deepwater blowout."
Scientists like Steiner had urgently tried to alert Obama to the depth of the rot at MMS. "I talked to the transition team," Steiner says. "I told them that MMS was a disaster and needed to be seriously reformed." A top-to-bottom restructuring of MMS didn't require anything more than Ken Salazar's will: The agency only exists by order of the Interior secretary. "He had full authority to change anything he wanted," says Rep. Issa, a longtime critic of MMS. "He didn't use it." Even though Salazar knew that the environmental risks of offshore drilling had been covered up under Bush, he failed to order new assessments. "They could have said, 'We cannot conclude there won't be significant impacts from drilling until we redo those reviews,'" says Brendan Cummings, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. "But the oil industry would have cried foul. And what we've seen with Salazar is that when the oil industry squeaks, he retreats."
MMS approved the Deepwater Horizon rig in less than a month after BP submitted the application. There are indications BP cut corners on the rig:
The company [BP] applied the same deadly cost-cutting mentality to its oil rig in the Gulf. BP, it is important to note, is less an oil company than a bank that finances oil exploration; unlike ExxonMobil, which owns most of the equipment it uses to drill, BP contracts out almost everything. That includes the Deepwater Horizon rig that it leased from a firm called Transocean. BP shaved $500,000 off its overhead by deploying a blowout preventer without a remote-control trigger – a fail-safe measure required in many countries but not mandated by MMS, thanks to intense industry lobbying. It opted to use cheap, single-walled piping for the well, and installed only six of the 21 cement spacers recommended by its contractor, Halliburton – decisions that significantly increased the risk of a severe explosion. It also skimped on critical testing that could have shown whether explosive gas was getting into the system as it was being cemented, and began removing mud that protected the well before it was sealed with cement plugs.
So now, here we are, with an environmental disaster. But at least we can comfort ourselves that Obama has instituted a moratorium on deep-water drilling until we come up with proper disaster contingency plans, correct ? We won't have another one of these uncontrollable disasters, correct ?
Even worse, the "moratorium" 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.
Most troubling of all, the government has allowed BP to continue deep-sea production at its Atlantis rig – one of the world's largest oil platforms. 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. In a May 19th letter to Salazar, 26 congressmen called for the rig to be shut down immediately. "We are very concerned," they wrote, "that the tragedy at Deepwater Horizon could foreshadow an accident at BP Atlantis."
I wouldn't advocate shutting down all the oil wells in the Gulf, but the deep-water rigs....is there any other choice until we come up with ways to deal with disasters ?
There's lots more in this long Rolling Stone article that indicates deception and incompetence by the government. It's well worth reading. Some of it is over the top, but a lot of it is right on the money.