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Think Again: Perception, Reality, and Responsibility in the Gulf Oil Spill

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama, accompanied by National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen, makes a statement after being briefed on the BP oil spill relief efforts in the Gulf Coast region on June 4, 2010.

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The president is in trouble. A New York Times “Week in Review” story, headlined “Obama and the Chaos Perception,” argued the real danger for Mr. Obama’s administration—not that the spill itself remains unmanageable, but that it comes to represent a pattern in the public mind, a sense that too many dangers at once… what matters is the perception….” This is a common notion, and it’s just as common for a journalist from say, The New York Times, to pretend that newspapers like, say, The New York Times, do not play a significant role in defining those perceptions.

One can find many of the same underlying attitudes in a Politico story entitled “Spill tests Obama management style.” Here the argument is slightly more refined: “Administrations are defined, fairly or not, by their capacity to control stagnant backwater agencies, in Obama’s case the Minerals Management Service, which failed to detect problems with the Deepwater Horizon well.”

The story also quotes Mr. John Burke, a University of Vermont professor, who complains, “This is what you get when you elect someone with legislative, not executive experience.” Burke adds, “Legislators don’t really have to rely on people to implement their laws—their job is to get them passed. He seems to be that kind of guy, as evidenced by the whole set-up down there [in the gulf], which is organizationally odd.”

While it’s true that nobody but President Barack Obama is responsible for his reaction to the oil spill—as well as his decision, just weeks before it took place, to allow expanded drilling in coastal areas—what appears to be lost in the discussion of the president’s responsibility is the manner in which the spill was allowed to take place and the state of the government agencies that Obama inherited to deal with it.

The reporting to understand the underlying factors in this story is certainly available. Since the spill began, for instance, we’ve learned—in the words of the sources linked below—that:

  • Michael J. Saucier, an official with the Minerals Management Service, said that his agency “highly encouraged,” but did not require, companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in case of an emergency. There was no enforcement.
  • The Minerals Management Service office’s history of corruption and coziness with the industry it was supposed to regulate had been the subject of years of scathing reports by government auditors, lurid headlines, and a score of congressional hearings.
  • The MMS’s unusual structure has also helped thwart efforts to overhaul it. It was established in 1982 by Interior Secretary James G. Watt by secretarial order, not legislation, which is a set up that some lawmakers have said made Congress pay less attention to it. And because it’s financed by the $13 billion a year it collects in oil royalties, it largely escapes the kind of scrutiny that other regulatory bodies get in the appropriations process.
  • Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members have taken in an average of $52,000 from individuals and groups associated with the oil and gas industry this election cycle, compared with $24,000 for others in the Senate, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
  • Federal regulators responsible for oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials several years ago to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil. The officials then turned the reports over to the regulators, who traced over them in pen before submitting the reports to the agency, according to an inspector general’s report to be released this week.
  • MMS inspectors accepted meals, tickets to sporting events, and gifts from at least one oil company while they were overseeing the industry.
  • A minerals agency employee conducted four inspections on drilling platforms in mid-2008 while he was also negotiating a job with the drilling company, a cover letter to the inspector general’s report said. And an MMS inspector from the Lake Charles, LA office admitted to investigators that he used crystal methamphetamine, an illegal drug. Investigators said they believe the inspector may have been under the influence of the drug during an inspection. Lake Charles office employees also repeatedly accepted gifts, including hunting and fishing trips, from the Island Operating Company, an oil and gas company working on oil platforms regulated by the Interior Department. Taking such gifts “appears to have been a generally accepted practice,” according to the department’s acting inspector general, Mary L. Kendall.
  • The MMS collected only 16 fines out of the 400 investigations it conducted into Gulf of Mexico drilling incidents over the past five years. MMS found about 200 violations of safety and environmental regulations, but “many proposed violations get reduced or dropped during behind-the-scenes reviews,” according to a Houston Chronicle investigation.
  • A series of internal investigations over the past decade warned senior BP managers that the oil company repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident if it did not change its ways. A 2001 report noted that BP had neglected key equipment needed for an emergency shutdown, including safety shut-off valves and gas and fire detectors similar to those that could have helped prevent the fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the gulf. A 2004 inquiry found a pattern of the company intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns. It said managers shaved maintenance costs by using aging equipment for as long as possible. Accidents resulted, including the 200,000-gallon Prudhoe Bay pipeline spill in 2006—the largest spill on Alaska’s North Slope—that was blamed on a corroded pipeline. California officials alleged in 2002 that the company falsified inspections of fuel tanks at a Los Angeles area refinery and that more than 80 percent of the facilities didn’t meet requirements to maintain storage tanks without leaks or damage. Inspectors had to get a warrant before BP allowed them to check the tanks. The company eventually settled a lawsuit brought by the South Coast Air Quality Management District for more than $100 million. Three years later, a Texas City refinery exploded, killing 15 people. An investigation found that a warning system failed, and independent experts found that “significant process safety issues exist at all five U.S. refineries, not just Texas City.”
  • A BP manager overseeing final well tests apparently had scant experience in deep-water drilling. He told investigators he was on the rig to “learn about deep water,” according to notes of an interview with him seen by the Wall Street Journal. Some of these decisions were approved by the U.S. Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service.

Given all of the above, it’s easy to see why Paul Krugman argues that for years the MMS “minimized the environmental risks of drilling. It failed to require a backup shutdown system that is standard in much of the rest of the world, even though its own staff declared such a system necessary. It exempted many offshore drillers from the requirement that they file plans to deal with major oil spills. And it specifically allowed BP to drill Deepwater Horizon without a detailed environmental analysis.”

Krugman makes the point that this was the modus operandi when it came to the Bush administration’s stewardship, both of our nation’s natural resources and of the government in general:

For the Bush administration was, to a large degree, run by and for the extractive industries—and I’m not just talking about Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Crucially, management of Interior was turned over to lobbyists, most notably J. Steven Griles, a coal-industry lobbyist who became deputy secretary and effectively ran the department. (In 2007 Mr. Griles pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his ties to Jack Abramoff.)

Dick Cheney’s role was crucial in creating this mess, as Krugman implies. As Josh Dorner of the Center for American Progress notes, “Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Task Force concluded in May 2001 that ‘advanced, more energy efficient drilling and production methods: reduce emissions; practically eliminate spills from offshore platforms; and enhance worker safety, lower risk of blowouts, and provide better protection of groundwater resources.’”

Dorner explains that:

One of the worst elements of what has come to be known as the ‘Dick Cheney energy bill’ had a direct role in eliminating the kind of regulatory oversight that may have prevented the blowout of BP’s Mississippi Canyon 252 well on April 20 of this year. Section 390 of the legislation dramatically expanded the circumstance under which drilling operations could forego environmental reviews and be approved almost immediately under so-called ‘categorical exclusions’ from the National Environmental Policy Act. The use of such exclusions went on to widespread abuse under the Bush administration. BP’s blown-out well did not undergo an environmental review thanks to a categorical exclusion. (BP was lobbying as recently as April to expand the use of such exclusions.)

The Center’s Rebecca Lefton adds that the MMS:

decided in 2005 that oil companies, rather than the government, were in the best position to determining their operations’ environmental impacts. This meant that there was no longer any need for an environmental impact analysis for deepwater drilling, though an earlier draft stated that such drilling experience was limited. In fact, MMS ‘repeatedly ignored warnings from government scientists about environmental risks in its push to approve energy exploration activities quickly, according to numerous documents and interviews.’ And an interior general analysis even found that between 2005 and 2007 MMS officials let the oil industry to fill out their own inspection reports.

Krugman correctly notes that Barack Obama “isn’t completely innocent of blame in the current spill” owing to the fact that BP “received an environmental waiver for Deepwater Horizon after Mr. Obama took office.” But the “broader pattern” here is one of “the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology.”

This pattern’s results can be seen in an infrastructure report card given to the United States by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The ranking—which grades the condition of 15 infrastructure entities such as roads, bridges, and dams—offered up an overall grade of a “D.”

Roads got a “D-” (“Poor conditions cost motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs. One-third of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 45 percent of major urban highways are congested.”) Drinking water received a “D-” (“America’s drinking water systems face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging facilities.”) Inland waterways got a “D-,” wastewater systems got a “D-,” levees got a “D-,” and so on.

These are the fruits of decades of malign neglect, and each of them is a disaster waiting to happen, just like the BP spill. What’s more, this neglect at the federal level is matched by an equal lack of interest in these topics by the members of the mainstream media. In a valuable new study by Jodi Enda in the American Journalism Review we learn that watchdog journalism is almost disappearing owing to its lack of sexiness and the increased pressure on profits at just about every major news organization.

As Enda notes, before the gulf spill no editor or producer thought to call a reporter and say, “Look what the Minerals Management Service is doing.” Almost nothing had been written about the MMS at all of late, save for its now infamous four-year sex scandal. According to MMS spokesman Nicholas Pardi, there’s not a single reporter in the country who covers its activities full time.

Based on all of the above it’s fair to say that the lion’s share of blame for the BP spill belongs to the Bush-Cheney administration, but that everyone involved was asleep at the switch. This should not only inform our discussion of the “perception” of where the president’s responsibility lies—it should also help us prepare for the next oil-spill scale disaster that surely awaits us.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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