Oily Gulf: Whose to Blame and Who Must Pay!?

This First BLOG post summarizes the institutional, social and political causes of the Oily Gulf disaster.  There is plenty of blame, responsibility and cost  to go around.  Learn here about how and why this problem happened.   Help to determine who is responsible and needs to be held accountable.  Here you will find concise summaries drawn from three articles.   Future articles will highlight what is being done by the key institutions, as well as what we can do as individuals.
Click the link below to learn about this disaster.

The Gulf Disaster: Whose Asses Need Kicking?
By Bryan Walsh Jun. 10, 2010

This excellent overview article from Time magazine documents the ways in which the major institutions (Big Oil and Big Government) failed to act

… As that realization sank in — that this will be the summer of the spill (and perhaps the fall and winter too) — public shock turned to anger, fueled by the first iconic images of oil-drenched birds and turtles. Most of that anger was directed at BP, the energy giant chiefly responsible for the spill and, perversely, for cleaning it up. An Internet campaign sprang up to boycott the company’s gas stations, while activists in Washington called for the citizen’s arrest of BP’s gaffe machine of a CEO, Tony Hayward, who blurted out that he would just “like [his] life back” — something he has in common with the 14 million residents of the Gulf Coast.

Even when the company did something right, it couldn’t do it right: for every 15,000 bbl. of oil that make it to the collection ship through the containment cap, perhaps 10,000 still leak away in the deep, and possibly far more. The ship must process what it collects before it can be stored, separating oil from gas from seawater, and it’s limited in how much it can handle.

President Barack Obama — criticized for being too cool in a crisis — has begun to reflect America’s rage. “I don’t sit around talking to experts because this is a college seminar,” he told the Today show on June 7. “We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answer, so I know whose ass to kick.”

There’s plenty of ass-kicking to go around. The Deepwater Horizon spill was also a regulatory failure, one that was a long time coming. The Minerals Management Service (MMS), the Interior Department agency meant to oversee offshore drilling, did far too little for far too long, creating a laissez-faire atmosphere in which a major accident was just waiting to happen. Though MMS’s lax oversight dates back to its creation in 1982 by Interior Secretary James Watt, a disciple of deregulation, Obama and his team did too little to clean house when they took over — just as they’ve been too slow to seize control over the spill response from BP.

And all of us bear responsibility too for depending on and demanding cheap oil underwritten by risky drilling while showing again and again at the ballot box that we wouldn’t support a government that really regulated the industry. “This failure of government is government acting the way American people have said they want it to act,” says Sarah Elkind, a political historian at San Diego State University. “We get what we deserve.” The question is whether we have the strength and smarts to recognize how Americans got to this oil-soaked moment and to force the changes needed to make sure it never happens again. …

It’s no secret that drilling for oil a mile below the surface of the ocean is a dangerous business, but industry insiders say it’s not that surprising that the oil spill happened to BP. The company, which produces more oil in the Gulf of Mexico than any other, has had a string of toxic safety problems in recent years. In 2005, a massive explosion rocked BP’s Texas City refinery, after a blowdown drum overfilled with liquid hydrocarbons. The resulting inferno killed 15 people and wounded more than 170. It was the worst industrial accident in the U.S. since 1990, and in its aftermath BP was skewered by investigators for its generally sloppy practices, including its use of old equipment, overworked and unsupervised employees and contractors and management’s inattention to safety. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board noted in a report that the incident was caused by “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels.” A BP executive later admitted that the fire was “a process failure, a cultural failure and a management failure.”

Nor was Texas City an isolated incident. Months after the fire, Hurricane Dennis battered the Gulf, nearly destroying BP’s 59,500-ton offshore platform Thunder Horse and exposing the structure’s shoddy ballast system. The next year, a corroded pipeline in BP’s Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska leaked thousands of barrels of crude in the worst on-land oil spill in the state’s history. CEO John Browne resigned in 2007 after that series of accidents and some embarrassing personal scandals; Tony Hayward, who succeeded him, promised to focus “like a laser” on safety. But the hits kept coming. Last October, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP a record $87.4 million for more than 700 violations at the Texas City refinery, despite its promises to fix the problems there. BP is a “serial environmental criminal,” says Scott West, formerly of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who investigated the company’s work in Alaska. …

Still, other experts argue that BP, which underwent round after round of cost cutting during the later years of Browne’s reign, lacks the relentless focus on safety that some of its competitors have. Witnesses in the Deepwater Horizon investigation have testified about an atmosphere of confusion and corner-cutting on the rig, where it wasn’t always clear who was in charge among the many contractors and subcontractors. “They don’t have what Exxon has, which is unbelievable control over its subcontractors,” says Tom Bower, a British journalist who charted the rise of BP in his book Oil, published this year. As Hayward put it himself in a recent interview with the Financial Times, BP lacked the “tools you would want in your tool kit” to close a blown well a mile below the ocean’s surface, which means the disaster is a failure of foresight and necessary planning as well.

But the blowout preventer that failed to stop the spill wasn’t the only backup system that fell through in the Gulf. Washington has a responsibility to oversee offshore-drilling operations, yet regulation over the industry has largely been toothless. Regulatory capture — the tendency of too many government overseers to get too friendly with the industry they’re supposed to be monitoring — has been especially acute in MMS. The agency is responsible both for the safety of energy exploration and for leasing federal territory for drilling, which brings in billions to the government.

That inherent conflict — selling to the industry even while supposedly overseeing it — undermines MMS, which has been exposed as both ineffective and corrupt. A 2008 report by the Interior Department’s inspector general found that MMS employees had used drugs, accepted gifts from and had sexual relationships with energy-company representatives. Another report, issued last month, found similar practices were still occurring, with at least one MMS worker negotiating for a job with an energy company while simultaneously inspecting its Gulf platforms. “The oil industry’s cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship with government regulators meant little or no regulation at all,” Obama said on May 27.

That too cozy relationship helped lead to Deepwater Horizon. Though BP’s drilling plan for the well mentioned that a worst-case blowout could result in 250,000 barrels of oil a day pouring into the Gulf, MMS let the company drill anyway, despite a flawed and dated response plan for such a disaster. Nor did MMS require BP to keep response equipment like containment domes close at hand. As a result, the company’s response to the spill has largely been improvised, and many days have been wasted moving hardware into place.  …

The Gulf Coast is under attack, but the enemy isn’t coming in a single massive wave. Instead, the constant flow of oil from the well, chemical dispersants and unpredictable ocean currents and winds have broken up the spill, so it can hit from many different angles at once. “This is not a large, monolithic spill anymore,” Allen told Fox News on June 6. “It is an aggregation of thousands of smaller spills that could come ashore at any particular time.” We’re fighting a guerrilla war against insurgent crude.

Stringing the shoreline with protective plastic boom, followed usually by a line of absorbent boom that can soak up the oil that gets by, remains our main defense perimeter against a spill, and it hasn’t changed in decades. The challenge is to track the oil as it moves, caught in the curlicue Gulf currents, and have ships on hand that can quickly move boom to where it’s needed. That’s why the response needs not only numbers — and more than 3,500 boats are now enrolled in the oil defense — but also coordination to get equipment to the right spot at the right time. As the spill gradually spreads from oil-soaked Louisiana to the beaches of Alabama, Mississippi and now Florida, coordination between big BP and small-boat owners, between federal officials and coastal mayors, is only going to get tougher. …

Protecting the land and making it whole is a massive job but perhaps no bigger than doing the same for the people who have watched their livelihoods be destroyed by the oil. BP has already paid out more than $80 million in claims to residents who have suffered from the spill, but on June 8 Allen was concerned enough about the company’s behavior that he intensified oversight of BP. The reality, though, is that much of the damage is done, and the millions in claims BP is paying out — not to mention the billions that will no doubt be sought in future lawsuits — can’t replace a coastal lifestyle that has been all but destroyed. “We will get this done. We will make this right,” promise BP’s ads in a new $50 million campaign. Gulf residents may rightly ask, “How?” …

As difficult as cleaning the oil over the next several months will be, mopping up the bureaucratic slop that led to the Gulf spill will be far tougher. For one thing, deepwater drilling has become an integral part of the U.S. energy mix. Wells dug more than 1,000 ft. below the Gulf’s surface now supply a quarter of U.S. oil production, a proportion that will likely rise. Ironically, in Louisiana, ground zero for the spill, support still runs high for offshore drilling, a major employer in the state. …

Given the enormous amount of influence the oil and gas industry has — it spent $174.8 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — Obama, if he really wants to break that circle, will need to make it a major priority and institutionalize oversight so that it will outlast his Administration. More than that, he’ll need to make the case to Americans that smart and aggressive regulation of drilling isn’t an obstacle to maintaining a successful energy industry but a prerequisite. That would buck the general trend of deregulation that goes back years, well before George W. Bush and Dick Cheney began turning a portion of the Interior Department into an annex of the American Petroleum Institute. …

Of course, no offshore-drilling program will ever be spillproof, but there are smart and noncontroversial steps that can be taken now to prepare for the next accident. We need to invest in developing cutting-edge cleanup technologies — like microbes that can eat oil — so that we have more options than shoreline boom and in situ burns. Oil companies should be required to keep more well-killing equipment on hand, so we don’t have to wait for them to build a containment dome from scratch, as BP did.  …

And then there’s the rest of us. Of course, it’s our appetite for gas — cheap gas — that provides the hundreds of millions of dollars oil companies keep spending to drill offshore and the billions they make in profit. We buy gas-guzzling cars, resist the use of public transportation and howl at the idea of carbon taxes or other measures that would bankroll research into alternative energy sources and make them competitive once they reach the market. We accept the business argument that regulation is an evil that isn’t necessary, rather than a necessary evil, and then we’re surprised when a rig blows and disaster ensues.

The Spill, The Scandal and the President
By  Tim Dickinson – RS 1107 from June 24, 2010.

This is an abstract of a much longer investigative report about the interlocking roles and responsibilities of the powerful and greedy oil industry (BP in particular); and a relatively small bu highly corrupt branch of the US federal government (the Minerals Management Service which reports to Interior Secretary Salazar.)   Neither party was prepared to deal with any accident, much less one of this awful and awesome magnitude.)  It does seem clear that the cowboy and likely corrupt cowboy Salazar either resign or be fired for his failure of vision, guts and leadership.

During the Bush years, the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Interior Department charged with safeguarding the environment from the ravages of drilling, descended into rank criminality. According to reports by Interior’s inspector general, MMS staffers were both literally and figuratively in bed with the oil industry. When agency staffers weren’t joining industry employees for coke parties or trips to corporate ski chalets, they were having sex with oil-company officials. But it was American taxpayers and the environment that were getting screwed. MMS managers were awarded cash bonuses for pushing through risky offshore leases, auditors were ordered not to investigate shady deals, and safety staffers routinely accepted gifts from the industry, allegedly even allowing oil companies to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil before tracing over them in pen. …

Salazar took over Interior in January 2009, vowing to restore the department’s “respect for scientific integrity.” He immediately traveled to MMS headquarters outside Denver and delivered a beat-down to staffers for their “blatant and criminal conflicts of interest and self-dealing” that had “set one of the worst examples of corruption and abuse in government.” Promising to “set the standard for reform,” Salazar declared, “The American people will know the Minerals Management Service as a defender of the taxpayer. You are the ones who will make special interests play by the rules.” Dressed in his trademark Stetson and bolo tie, Salazar boldly proclaimed, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” …

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.  …

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.” One of the Bush-era managers whom Salazar left in place was John Goll, the agency’s director for Alaska. Shortly after, the Interior secretary announced a reorganization of MMS in the wake of the Gulf disaster, Goll called a staff meeting and served cake decorated with the words “Drill, baby, drill.” …

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.” …

Salazar did not even ensure that MMS had a written manual – required under Interior’s own rules – for complying with environmental laws. According to an investigation in March by the Government Accountability Office, MMS managers relied instead on informal “institutional knowledge” – passed down from the Bush administration. The sole written guidance appeared on a website that only provided, according to the report, “one paragraph about assessing environmental impacts of oil and gas activities, not detailed instructions that could lead an analyst through the process of drafting an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.” …

BP is the last oil company on Earth that Salazar and MMS should have allowed to regulate itself. The firm is implicated in each of the worst oil disasters in American history, dating back to the Exxon Valdez in 1989. At the time, BP directed the industry consortium that bungled the cleanup response to Valdez during the fateful early hours of the spill, when the worst of the damage occurred. Vital equipment was buried under snow, no cleanup ship was standing by and no containment barge was available to collect skimmed oil. Exxon, quickly recognizing what still seems to elude the Obama administration, quickly shunted BP aside and took control of the spill.

In March 2006, BP was responsible for an Alaska pipeline rupture that spilled more than 250,000 gallons of crude into Prudhoe Bay – at the time, a spill second in size only to the Valdez disaster. Investigators found that BP had repeatedly ignored internal warnings about corrosion brought about by “draconian” cost cutting. The company got off cheap in the spill: While the EPA recommended slapping the firm with as much as $672 million in fines, the Bush administration allowed it to settle for just $20 million. …

The company 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. ….

On the campaign trail, Obama had stressed that offshore drilling “will not make a real dent in current gas prices or meet the long-term challenge of energy independence.” But once in office, he bowed to the politics of “drill, baby, drill.” Hoping to use oil as a bargaining chip to win votes for climate legislation in Congress, Obama unveiled an aggressive push for new offshore drilling in the Arctic, the Southeastern seaboard and new waters in the Gulf, closer to Florida than ever before. In doing so, he ignored his administration’s top experts on ocean science, who warned that the offshore plan dramatically understated the risks of an oil spill and petitioned Salazar to exempt the Arctic from drilling until more scientific studies could be conducted. …

What’s more, the administration failed to ensure that BP was prepared to respond to the mess on the surface, where a lack of ships and equipment has left more than 100 miles of the coast – including vast stretches of fragile marshlands – covered in crude. According to MMS regulations, the agency is supposed to “inspect the stockpiles of industry’s equipment for the containment and cleanup of oil spills.” In BP’s case, the agency should have made sure the company was prepared to clean up a spill of 250,000 barrels a day. But when Rolling Stone asked MMS whether BP had the required containment equipment on hand, the agency’s head of public affairs in the Gulf replied, “I am not clear if MMS has the info that you are requesting.”

The effect of leaving BP in charge of capping the well, says a scientist involved in the government side of the effort, has been “like a drunk driver getting into a car wreck and then helping the police with the accident investigation.” Indeed, the administration has seemed oddly untroubled about leaving the Gulf’s fate in the hands of a repeat criminal offender, and uncurious about the crimes that may have been committed leading up to the initial sinking of the rig. The Obama Justice Department took more than 40 days after the initial blast killed 11 workers to announce it was opening a criminal probe.

Hightower: Who the Hell’s in Charge Here? BP Disaster Caused by a Nasty Mix of Government Impotence and Corporate Rule

Jim Hightower is one of the most important and well-established progressive commentators.  He served as commissioner of Texas Agriculture and has been an outspoken critic of big business and corrupt politicians.

As the ruinous gulf oil blowout spreads onto land, over wildlife, across the ocean floor and into people’s lives, it raises a fundamental question for all of us Americans: Who the hell’s in charge here? What we’re witnessing is not merely a human and environmental horror, but also an appalling deterioration in our nation’s governance. Just as we saw in Wall Street’s devastating economic disaster and in Massey Energy’s murderous explosion inside its Upper Big Branch coal mine, the nastiness in the gulf is baring an ugly truth that We the People must finally face: We are living under de facto corporate rule that has rendered our government impotent. …

With an unprecedented volume of crude gushing from the well and the magnitude of the disaster multiplying geometrically by the day, who was in charge of coping with that? Not the White House, not the interior secretary, not the EPA. As we saw when Wall Street’s greed exploded our economy, the polluting scoundrels were left in charge!

While BP’s dapper CEO issued patently ridiculous statements (such as, “Everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact of this will be very, very modest.”), our government blindly went along with BP’s false assertion that only some 5,000 barrels a day were pouring from the well, when independent experts were shouting at the White House that the correct volume was up to 19 times that much.

Obama should personally take charge —-cancel all of his social and political events, convene an emergency response team of the best scientific minds in the world, announce a clear plan of clean-up actions, install all relevant Cabinet officials in a Gulf Coast command center to direct the actions, make daily reports on progress to the public, fire a mess of failed regulators and go to Congress with sweeping legislation to replace America’s oil dependency with a crash program of conservation and renewable energy sources.

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