BP and the Obama administration couldn’t have made a bigger mess of the Gulf, whether the latest cap holds or not. For 50 days, the administration left clean-up to the London-based company, while a U.S. president remained detached.
BP, many of whose executives contributed to Obama’s presidential campaign, received a federal safety award in 2009, after a refinery fire killed several of its workers. The Department of Interior, lead agency for enforcing drilling permits, was missing-in-action as the doomed deepwater project moved forward.
Could the infant spill have been handled differently in late April? A week was lost to indecision. Then the government saw its emergency plans foiled by storms. When seas settled, oil had spread miles down-current from the wellhead, making effective recovery and incineration nearly impossible.
The Army Corps of Engineers denied Governor Jindal’s request for oil-blocking berms to protect Louisiana’s sensitive coastline, for lack of prior environmental studies—as if present destruction of marine life and the fate of a billion-dollar fishery weren’t adequate reasons to waive regulations. The Coast Guard even turned oil-skimming barges back to New Orleans because they lacked life preservers.
The president refused recovery vessels offered by Belgium, Netherlands, and Norway shortly after April 20, citing the 1926 Jones Act that prohibits foreign vessels from operating in U.S. waters. That act also permits a president to wave its provisions, as President George W. Bush did after Hurricane Katrina. The current administration—quite reluctantly and belatedly—has relented somewhat on this crucial matter.
Sensing public impatience, the president directed his attorney general to proceed with criminal prosecution of BP. Then he summoned the company CEO to the White House to demand $20 billion to cover anticipated claims. The move was labeled a “shakedown” by a Texas congressman, who was roundly criticized for his candor. It can hardly be seen as anything but Chicago-style politics when a president makes such demands while his attorney general contemplates legal action against alleged criminal activity.
Meeting in London, executives of major oil companies criticized Obama for imposing a blanket moratorium on drilling in U.S. waters. They predict petroleum shortfalls in the face of world demand if U.S. deep-sea rigs continue to be shut down. Some 85 percent of our offshore waters, deep and shallow, are already off-limits to drilling by congressional edict.
Prohibition of drilling in shallower waters or on land contributes to risk of a deepwater blowout like that in April. Because of restrictions on exploration, we still lack accurate estimates of potential domestic reserves, and ignorance contributes to price volatility of refined products such as gasoline and diesel.
A federal judge lifted the original moratorium imposed by Interior Secretary Salazar, who responded by issuing another, this time specific to the deepwater areas of the Gulf. The secretary based his actions on distorted recommendations of National Academy of Sciences experts, who were deceived into thinking they had signed onto a report that referred only to new exploratory wells in the Gulf.
A paragraph inserted later encompassed all U.S. territorial waters. Outraged, they published a letter of protest in the Wall Street Journal. The subterfuge has since drawn scant attention in the mainstream media.
The emerging picture helps explain delayed responses to the growing spill by the president. In keeping with Rahm Emanuel’s often-quoted “Never let a crisis go to waste,” President Obama and Democratic leaders are contemplating passage of cap-and-trade legislation in a lame-duck session following the November elections.
If they are successful, its carbon taxes will compound the staggering costs of the spill to Gulf residents and commercial interests, and potentially break the back of our fragile economy.
William D. Balgord, Ph.D., a consultant in Middleton, WI, previously worked for Pan American Petroleum’s exploration division.