Monday, May 10, 2010

Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess

May 10, 2010, 8:45 a.m.

[If you're looking for the 12 prior blog entries about the ICCSD superintendent search see, "The Beat Goes On, But Music's Out of Tune," May 1, 2010, and 11 items linked from "Superintendent Murley's Calm Seas, Smooth Sailing," April 29, 2010. If you're interested in the ICCSD redrawing school boundary lines fiasco see, "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways," April 16, 2010, with links to 23 related, prior blog entries and other writing.]

Connecting Those Slippery, Oily Dots
(brought to you by*)

Update: May 14: A couple of the most shocking stories yet (corporate-government silencing scientists, suppressing data): Justin Gillis, "Size of Oil Spill Underestimated, Scientists Say," New York Times, May 14, 2010, p. A1; Ian Urbina, "U.S. Said to Allow Drilling Without Needed Permits," New York Times, May 14, 2010, p. A1 ("The [MMS] gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits . . . despite strong warnings . . . about the impact the drilling was likely to have . . . [and] routinely overruled its staff biologists and engineers who raised concerns . . ..").

Update: May 12: Editorial, "The Oil Industry Doesn't Step Up," New York Times, May 12, 2010, p. A24; John M. Broder, "U.S. to Split Up Agency Policing the Oil Industry," New York Times, May 12, 2010, p. A1; Editorial, "Raise Liability Cap for Oil Companies," Des Moines Register, May 12, 2010; Matthew L. Wald, "Live-Blogging the Senate Hearing on Offshore Drilling," New York Times/Green, May 11, 2010.

Update, May 11: "MMS Approved 27 Gulf Drilling Operations After BP Disaster; 26 Were Exempted From Environmental Review, Including Two to BP; Salazar's "Moratorium" on New Drilling Permits Allows Continuation of the Same Flawed Environmental Exemption Process that Allowed the BP Catastrophe," Center for Biological Diversity, May 7, 2010 ("Even as the BP drilling explosion which killed eleven people continues to gush hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) has continued to exempt dangerous new drilling operations from environmental review. Twenty-seven new offshore drilling projects have been approved since April 20, 2010; twenty-six under the same environmental review exemption used to approve the disastrous BP drilling that is fouling the Gulf and its wildlife. “The MMS has learned absolutely nothing from this national catastrophe,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, “It is still illegally exempting dangerous offshore drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico from all environmental review. It is outrageous and unacceptable.”).

And see the recent, related, "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.

The details of one of the most devastating environmental disasters in American history on fish, wildlife and beaches is not the most important story.

The details of the technology that permits drilling for oil a mile beneath the ocean's surface -- and that fails us when that drilling goes awry -- is not the most important story.

The tragic sacrifice of workers' lives -- 11 on the Deepwater Horizon (plus 29 in the Massey Coal mine) -- to the profits of their corporate employers with "cost savings" on inadequate and malfunctioning safety technology is not the most important story.

The response of suddenly get-tough-on-oil senators and members of Congress, and what the investigations may ultimately reveal (or conceal), is not the most important story.

The newspaper and television coverage of the oil disaster is not the most important story.

All of the above are mere diversions from the most important story.

The most important story? The extent to which America's officials -- and the public, let it be noted -- have permitted major corporations' campaign contributions, lobbying, public relations, advertising, and other influence to corrupt our nation's ability to formulate, and enforce, policies that would best serve "the national interest."

We're generally aware of the extent to which Goldman Sachs alums have infiltrated the government, from the Fed to the Treasury to the White House itself, and how they influence Congress. See, e.g., the summary in Alex Floum, "Goldman Sachs alumni hold many of the top government positions," Economic Policy Examiner, May 6, 2010; Albert R. Hunt, "Scarlet Letter for the Greed Generation," New York Times, April 25, 2010 ("Goldman’s political action committee gave $290,500 to congressional candidates last month as Congress weighed the financial-regulation overhaul. Mr. Obama shook the Goldman Sachs money tree for almost $1 million in his presidential campaign.").

We are perhaps less well informed and aware of the extent to which many industries exert similar influence over governmental decision making as well.

So let us consider the case study of BP.

From the West Coast to the Gulf Coast

This picture is so revealing. [Photo credit: UC Berkeley Media Relations] The caption reads, "Backstage before the announcement, UC President Robert Dynes (right) flashes 'thumbs up' to BP America chairman Robert Malone . . .."

"The announcement." "What announcement?" I hear you ask. The announcement that BP is going to give UC Berkeley (my first post-clerkship employer) $500 million.

Global energy firm BP announced today (Thursday, Feb. 1 [2007]) that it has selected the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) . . . to lead an unprecedented $500 million research effort to develop new sources of energy and reduce the impact of energy consumption on the environment. . . .

"This partnership with BP will develop new, sustainable energy technologies that can transform the landscape," said Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, director of LBNL — a U.S. Department of Energy-funded lab — and UC Berkeley professor of physics and of molecular and cell biology.
Robert Sanders, "BP Selects UC Berkeley to Lead $500 Million Energy Research Consortium," UC Berkeley News, February 1, 2007.

Why is this story relevant? Well, for starters it is an illustration of the fact that the tentacles of a multi-billion-dollar corporation like BP extend into far more major American institutions than just the federal government -- especially the large, prestigious, research universities.

It also makes the point that when you're in a position to hand out money in $500 million bundles you tend to get a thumbs up from everyone you meet -- including presidents and members of Congress.

How can a company afford to make $500 million contributions? BP's first quarter profits were $5.6 billion; that's profits, not revenue, which is of course much greater; and not annual profits, but three months' worth of profits.

But there's more. Just as occasionally when you drill you strike oil, so occasionally when you pay $500 million for favorable public relations (BP was trying to sell the public on the idea that BP no longer stands for "British Petroleum," it now stands for "Beyond Petroleum") you strike another kind of oil.

And so it was with their beneficence spread upon Professor Chu. Do you know where he is now? That's right, President Obama decided he would make a great Secretary of Energy -- the guy who's supposed to be helping us overcome our oil addiction.

And what did he have to say recently about the BP oil spill disaster?

"U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday it was not a mistake for the administration to support more offshore drilling as part of comprehensive energy reform, despite the oil rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico that continues to threaten coastal areas." John Wihbey, "Energy Sec. Steven Chu: More Drilling Proposal 'Not a Mistake,'” "On Point with Tom Ashbrook"/WBUR/NPR, May 5, 2010.

Spreading Money Like Oil

But it's BP's generosity with members of Congress that may have even more to do with its disaster in the Gulf than its generosity with Energy Secretary Chu. After all, the pollution of the Gulf is primarily the responsibility of the Secretary of the Interior, not the Secretary of Energy.

Oil behemoth BP poured millions of dollars into lobbying and campaign contributions over the past two decades, courting allies in Congress and the White House. . . . BP paid $6.2 million in campaign contributions since 1990, landing on the list of 107 "heavy hitters" compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The company's political action committee has helped the re-election efforts of many . . ..

And that's just part of BP's political spending.

Just in the past year, BP doled out nearly $16 million for influence efforts, using both its own lobbyists and those with eight other firms . . ..
Anne C. Mulkern, "Big Contributor BP Finds Itself Without a Friend on the Hill," New York Times/Greenwire, May 4, 2010; and see Bara Vaida, "K Street Paradox; Special Report: President Obama's fight against special interests boomerangs as lobbying firms just get richer," National Journal, March 13, 2010 (subscription service) ("President Obama continues to campaign against Washington's special interests, but to what effect? The more he tries to rein in lobbyists, the more K Street rakes in.").

OK, but what does that have to do with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar? Well, before he was a cabinet secretary it happens that he was a U.S. Senator -- a senator who served just shy of one term.

Having not yet been a senator for a full term, Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) [who] hasn't had much time to collect money from the industries that will take a special interest in him as Secretary of the Interior . . . . has collected a total of $321,800 from the energy and natural resources sector during his short time in the Senate . . ..
Lindsay Renick Mayer, "Interior Motives," Open Secrets, December 16, 2008.

And what was his record as a Senator? His Wikipedia entry reports that,

In 2005, Salazar voted against increasing fuel-efficiency standards (CAFE) for cars and trucks . . . [and] against an amendment to repeal tax breaks for ExxonMobil and other major petroleum companies. . . .

In 2006, Salazar voted to end protections that limit offshore oil drilling in Florida's Gulf Coast.

In 2007, Salazar was one of only a handful of Democrats to vote against a bill that would require the United States Army Corps of Engineers to consider global warming when planning water projects.
"Ken Salazar," Wikipedia.

So we shouldn't be surprised with Paul Krugman's reminder this morning that "environmentalists were bitterly disappointed when Mr. Obama chose Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior. They feared that he would be too friendly to mineral and agricultural interests, that his appointment meant that there wouldn’t be a sharp break with Bush-era policies — and in this one instance at least, they seem to have been right." Paul Krugman, "Sex and Drugs and the Spill," New York Times, May 10, 2010, p. A23.

Regulators Make Strange Bedfellows

And so what role did President Obama's Secretary of the Interior play in bringing on this Gulf disaster?

The Interior Department exempted BP's calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis last year, according to government documents . . . [as a result of] [t]he decision by the department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) to give BP's lease at Deepwater Horizon a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on April 6, 2009 -- and BP's lobbying efforts just 11 days before the explosion to expand those exemptions . . ..

"I'm of the opinion that boosterism breeds complacency and complacency breeds disaster," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) on Tuesday. "That, in my opinion, is what happened." . . .

While the MMS assessed the environmental impact of drilling in the central and western Gulf of Mexico on three occasions in 2007 -- including a specific evaluation of BP's Lease 206 at Deepwater Horizon -- in each case it played down the prospect of a major blowout.

In one assessment, the agency estimated that "a large oil spill" from a platform would not exceed a total of 1,500 barrels and that a "deepwater spill," occurring "offshore of the inner Continental shelf," would not reach the coast. In another assessment, it defined the most likely large spill as totaling 4,600 barrels and forecast that it would largely dissipate within 10 days and would be unlikely to make landfall.

"They never did an analysis that took into account what turns out to be the very real possibility of a serious spill," said Holly Doremus, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has reviewed the documents.

The MMS mandates that companies drilling in some areas identify under NEPA what could reduce a project's environmental impact. But Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said the service grants between 250 and 400 waivers a year for Gulf of Mexico projects. He added that Interior has now established the "first ever" board to examine safety procedures for offshore drilling. It will report back within 30 days on BP's oil spill and will conduct "a broader review of safety issues," Lee-Ashley said.

BP's exploration plan for Lease 206 [Deepwater Horizon], which calls the prospect of an oil spill "unlikely," stated that "no mitigation measures other than those required by regulation and BP policy will be employed to avoid, diminish or eliminate potential impacts on environmental resources."

[T]he plan . . . minimized the prospect of any serious damage associated with a spill, saying there would be only "sub-lethal" effects on fish and marine mammals, and "birds could become oiled. However it is unlikely that an accidental oil spill would occur from the proposed activities."

Kierán Suckling, executive director of the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, said the federal waiver "put BP entirely in control" of the way it conducted its drilling.

Agency a 'rubber stamp'

"The agency's oversight role has devolved to little more than rubber-stamping British Petroleum's self-serving drilling plans," Suckling said.

BP has lobbied the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- which provides NEPA guidance for all federal agencies -- to provide categorical exemptions more often. In an April 9 letter, BP America's senior federal affairs director, Margaret D. Laney, wrote to the council that such exemptions should be used in situations where environmental damage is likely to be "minimal or non-existent." An expansion in these waivers would help "avoid unnecessary paperwork and time delays," she added.
Juliet Eilperin, "U.S. exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study," Washington Post, May 5, 2010.

The disaster was predictable. Why predictable? Consider the record:

The 2005 explosion at a refinery in Texas City, Tex., killed 15 workers and injured hundreds more. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP a record $87 million for neglecting to correct safety violations.

Only a year later, a leaky BP oil pipeline in Alaska forced the shutdown of one of the nation’s biggest oil fields. BP was fined $20 million in criminal penalties after prosecutors said the company had neglected corroding pipelines. . . .

Last year, when the federal Minerals Management Service proposed a rule that would have required companies to have their safety and environmental management programs audited once every three years, BP and other companies objected. The agency is also investigating charges by a whistle-blower that the company discarded important records from its Atlantis Gulf platform.
Clifford Krauss, "Oil Spill’s Blow to BP’s Image May Eclipse Costs," New York Times, April 30, 2010; and see additional details and comparisons with other companies in Jad Mouawad, "BP Has a Record of Blasts and Oil Spills," New York Times, May 9, 2010, p. A22 ("BP, the nation’s biggest oil and gas producer, has a worse health, environment and safety record than many other major oil companies, according to Yulia Reuter, the head of the energy research team at RiskMetrics . . ..").

There are no simple answers to how an agency becomes "captured" by the industry it is supposed to regulate. But here are a couple of insights.

Regulators make strange bedfellows. You do recall the Minerals Management Service don't you? "Government officials in charge of collecting billions of dollars worth of royalties from oil and gas companies accepted gifts, steered contracts to favored clients and engaged in drug use and illicit sex with employees of the energy firms, federal investigators reported yesterday." Derek Kravitz and Mary Pat Flaherty, "Report Says Oil Agency Ran Amok; Interior Dept. Inquiry Finds Sex, Corruption," Washington Post, September 11, 2008. Noelle Straub, "GAO Audit: MMS Withheld Offshore Drilling Data, Hindered Risk Analyses in Alaska," New York Times/Greenwire, April 7, 2010 -- roughly three weeks before the current disaster.

So what? So, "The [Department of the Interior] inspector general said that these relationships have cost taxpayers $4.4 million in lapsed collection fees, but due to the sloppy administration at MMS, the real cost may go undiscovered. In a separate report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that MMS is plagued by inefficiency in collecting royalties, and that there is no way to backtrack and figure out how much has actually been lost. Currently, oil companies submit their own data and MMS simply takes them at their word, rather than independently confirming that the numbers are correct — what the inspector general has referred to in a letter to Secretary Dirk Kempthorne as a “Band-Aid approach to holding together one of the federal government's largest revenue producing operations.” A separate GAO report found that the United States is not collecting fair market price for royalties on public resources — which may be seriously limiting the amount of money taken in by MMS, and hence, the taxpayers." "Broken Government," Center for Public Integrity.

These consequences are reinforced as a result of what has come to be called the "revolving door."

In trying to understand why M.M.S. fails in its fiduciary and regulatory responsibilities to taxpayers, it’s impossible to ignore the revolving door between the agency and the industry that it oversees. Since leaving government service, Gale Norton, secretary of Interior under President Bush, became Shell’s general counsel, and J. Steven Griles, a deputy secretary of Interior, lobbied for numerous oil and gas industries — including BP — before he went to jail for obstructing a Senate investigation. Randall Luthi, the most recent director of M.M.S., is now president of the National Oceans Industries Association, whose mission is to secure a “favorable regulatory and economic environment for the companies that develop the nation’s valuable offshore energy resources.” . . .

Longstanding cozy ties with industry may help explain why M.M.S. failed to bolster safety requirements for equipment and processes used on the Deepwater Horizon rig — despite internal reports giving clear warnings about the risks of these devices and techniques.

At the end of the day, this spill should show Congress that there are real harms when government regulators consider the industry they oversee to be a partner or client (or future employer) rather than an entity that they should hold accountable.
Danielle Brian and Mandy Smithberger, "Our Government, Serving the Energy Business," in Editors, "Rules, Revolving Doors and the Oil Industry," New York Times, May 5, 2010.

Oil Seepage Into the White House

In fairness to the Obama Administration, it should be noted that this "self-regulation" of offshore drilling actually began during the Clinton Administration.

"We are not supportive of the extensive, prescriptive regulations as proposed in this rule," wrote Richard Morrison, BP's vice president for Gulf of Mexico production. "We believe industry's current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs implemented since the adoption of [voluntary standards] have been and continue to be very successful." . . . The voluntary approach was adopted in 1994 during the Clinton administration.
Mike Soraghan, "BP, Other Oil Companies Opposed Effort to Stiffen Environmental, Safety Rules for Offshore Drilling," Greenwire/New York Times, April 27, 2010.

Because ultimately this rot from within government, like an under-ocean oil spill, makes its way up to the White House and the President himself. President Obama is, from all indications, a bright guy, well informed, a quick study, not easily bamboozled. So when he starts mouthing oil industry propaganda it's hard to make excuses for him -- much as I'd like to believe he was simply relying too heavily on staff members, or industry spokespersons, he thought he could trust.

And yet, there he was on March 31, announcing from Andrews Air Force Base,

[A]s we transition to cleaner energy sources, we’ve still got to make some tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines. . . .

[T]he bottom line is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.

So today we’re announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration, but in ways that balance the need to harness domestic energy resources and the need to protect America’s natural resources. Under the leadership of Secretary Salazar, we’ll employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration. We’ll protect areas that are vital to tourism, the environment, and our national security. And we’ll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence.
"Remarks by The President on Energy Security at Andrews Air Force Base," March 21, 2010.

On April 2, 2010 -- 18 days before the BP disaster -- here is what the President had to say in Charlotte, North Carolina:

[Photo credit: White House] [W]e’ve got to look at our traditional energy sources and figure out how can we use those most effectively and in the most environmentally sound way. . . .

The decision around drilling -- same approach. What we did was we said we’re not going to have drilling a mile off the North Carolina coast or two miles off. But 50 miles off, 100 miles off, where it is appropriate and environmentally sound and not risky, we should allow exploration to begin taking place to see if there’s certain reserves. . . .

But what we did was we tried to look at the scientific evidence and figure out where are areas where low risk environmentally and a high potential upside. . . .

I don’t agree with the notion that we shouldn’t do anything. 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.
"Remarks by the President in a Discussion on Jobs and the Economy," Charlotte, North Carolina, April 2, 2010.

"Protect communities and protect coastlines"; "protect America's natural resources -- tourism, the environment -- guided by scientific evidence"; "environmentally sound and not risky"; "low risk environmentally"; "technologically advanced -- oil rigs today don't cause spills." It sounds as if it was written by a BP publicist. Hopefully, it was not -- but the result is just the same.

Wrapping Up With Democracy Now:
How is the Environmental Impact of Offshore Drilling Like a Forest Trail?

To wrap it up, here is the "Democracy Now" interview of Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity:

SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: Minerals Management Service will not be issuing any permits for the construction of new offshore wells [after] May the 28th. . . . But today is not really the day to deal with those issues. . . .

[Democracy Now reporter] JUAN GONZALEZ: Secretary Salazar added that the existing offshore oil and natural gas drilling will continue, . . ..

[Democracy Now anchor] AMY GOODMAN: Salazar’s announcement comes on the heels of a Washington Post exposé revealing that the Minerals Management Service had approved BP’s drilling plan in the Gulf of Mexico without any environmental review. The article notes that the agency under Secretary Salazar had quote “categorically excluded” BP’s drilling as well as hundreds of other offshore drilling permits from environmental review. The agency was able to do this using a loophole in the National Environmental Policy Act created for minimally intrusive actions like building outhouses and hiking trails. Well, for more on this story, we’re joined now from Tucson, Arizona by Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Welcome to DEMOCRACY NOW!, Kieran. Explain this loophole, how you found it, and what it means for the Gulf.

KIERAN SUCKLING: Well, when a federal government is going to approve a project, it has to go through an environmental review. But for projects that have very, very little impact like building an outhouse or a hiking trail, they can use something called a categorical exclusion and say there’s no impact here at all so we don’t need to spend energy or time doing a review. Well, we looked at the oil drilling permits being issued by the Minerals Management Service in the Gulf, and we were shocked to find out that they were approving hundreds of massive oil drilling permits using this categorical exclusion instead of doing a full environmental impact study. And then, we found out that BP’s drilling permit—the very one that exploded—was done under this loophole and so it was never reviewed by the federal government at all. It was just rubber-stamped.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, according to the Washington Post article, in one of its assessments of the agency “estimated that a large oil spill from a deep platform like the Deepwater Horizon would not exceed a total of 1,500 barrels and that a deepwater spill occurring off the Intercontinental shelf would not reach the coast.” Obviously, both of those—both of those assessments have proven dramatically off the mark. As many as 250-400 waivers a year for drilling in the Gulf?

KIERAN SUCKLING: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s also important to note that when the government says it’s very unlikely this spill will occur, it’s unlikely the spill will reach shore, those aren’t even the government’s own assessments. They’re just repeating what BP, Exxon, and other oil companies put in their drilling applications. And since there’s no environmental impact study, the government never actually does an independent review. So everyone is just repeating the industry’s statements as they rubber-stamp the approvals.

AMY GOODMAN: Reporters questioned White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday about why BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling operation was exempted from the detailed environmental impact analysis last year. . . .

KIERAN SUCKLING: The White House and the Department of Interior are really sort of ducking their heads on this issue right now because it’s an enormous problem. Especially since just a few months ago the Government Accountability Office came out with the report on MMS’s operations in Alaska, where they also have offshore drilling, and specifically said the agency is not doing these environmental studies properly. They’re avoiding doing them at all. And then they went ahead knowing that the GAO had just done this study and continued to put them out. So, this is not something new. MMS knew they had a problem. In fact, when Interior Secretary Salazar first came into office, he announced ‘There’s a new Sheriff in town, I’m going to clean up this corrupt agency,’ and instead of doing that, he’s pushed them to put out more offshore oil drilling permits while not cleaning up what is clearly a broken process of doing any environmental review at all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to play a clip of President Obama where he says that oil spills don’t come from rigs, but from refineries. He was speaking on April 2nd, just over two weeks before the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to point 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. . . .

KIERAN SUCKLING: Yeah, I mean, I think what the President has said here is actually just very, very critical, because he is repeating, and I suspect without even knowing it, the big lie of offshore oil drilling. For decades, the oil companies and the Minerals Management Service have told us, ‘Oil drilling is safe, it’s fine, that’s not where oil spills come from.’ In fact, that’s the basis of not doing any environmental review is, you simply assert it will never be a problem, therefore, you don’t even have to study it. While it’s true that they don’t leak often, but when they do leak, it’s absolutely catastrophic. It’s very similar to nuclear power plants. They don’t often fail, but when they fail it’s catastrophic. And, therefore, you have to plan for catastrophe. You have to do very intensive environmental analysis, not simply say, ’It’s rare, so we can ignore it.’

AMY GOODMAN: Kieran Suckling, what do think has to happen right now?

KIERAN SUCKLING: Well, first off, I think that the President should announce a complete moratorium on all new offshore oil drilling. This three-week time-out is really too little, too late. And it’s very important to do that now because the president, under the urging of Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, has planned to open up new offshore oil drilling in Alaska, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and on the Atlantic coast. And that just needs to end. It’s not safe anywhere, anytime.

Secondly, the president should immediately revoke existing oil permits and especially in Alaska. Shell Oil, this July, . . . is going to start doing offshore oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea of Alaska. And if you think it’s difficult to clean up oil in the relatively warm, calm Gulf of Mexico, imagine trying to do this with icebergs and sea ice, twenty hours of darkness, in the Arctic oceans. It just cannot be done. If this spill had happened in Alaska, its magnitude would have been ten times worse than has happened in the Gulf.

Then, thirdly, the President should start an initiation of an investigation of Ken Salazar and his role in allowing this to happen.

Salazar has been a major proponent of the offshore oil drilling industry. He passed legislation as a senator in 2006 to open up the Gulf of Mexico in the first place to offshore oil drilling. He gets campaign contributions by British Petroleum. And then he walks into this agency he is supposed to reform, and instead of reforming it, pushes it to do even more offshore oil drilling. So Ken Salazar is part of the problem here, not the solution. He should not be doing the investigation of MMS. He should be under investigation for helping to cause this crisis.
"Government Exempted BP From Environmental Review," Democracy Now, May 7, 2010 (video and transcript).

Most institutions only respond to internal problems when they become serious or dramatic enough to create significant adverse media coverage. The response may be helpful, or may be counterproductive -- even to the institution's self-interest.

But even after the public relations disaster there's no assurance meaningful reform will ensue. Consider our financial collapse. As I pointed out in a recent blog entry, the first thing to do if the problem is "too big to fail" is to make the institutions smaller. And yet, when the Senate tried it was the Senate that was "too" something; it failed. The Goldman Sachs alums won again.

A move to break up major Wall Street banks failed Thursday night by a vote of 61 to 33.

Three Republicans, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John Ensign of Nevada, voted with 30 Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in support of the provision. The author of the pending overall financial reform bill in the Senate, Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, voted against it.

The amendment . . . would have required megabanks to be broken down in size and capped so that their individual failure would not bring down the entire system. . . .

In practice, the amendment required the six biggest banks -- Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley -- to significantly scale down their size. It was touted as a way to end Too Big To Fail.

Though top Obama administration officials have not publicly opposed the amendment, its leading economists have opposed ending Too Big To Fail simply by breaking up the nation's financial behemoths. Austan Goolsbee and Larry Summers have both fought back against this idea, as has Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
"Senate Votes For Wall Street; Megabanks To Remain Behemoths," Huffington Post, May 6, 2010.

It remains to be seen whether even America's worst environmental disaster, getting worse by the day, will be enough to change the culture of Washington anymore than our financial collapse was able to do.

But now at least we can see how to connect those slippery, oily dots; now we understand "the rest of the story."

Will we do anything about it -- you and me? That also remains to be seen.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
# # #


Steve Groenewold said...

Are there any gentleman/woman politicians left, a la Jim Leach, who would do the right thing as they believe it to be, rather than the thing that pockets them the most cash?

One can see why the Tea Party catches on so quickly - our government seems broken beyond repair.

Anonymous said...

Jim Leach, doing the right thing? Ha!

You might check who contributed to Leach's campaigns. Then you might see who deregulated the financial industry.


Nick said...

Notice Regarding Advertising: This blog runs an open comments section. All comments related to blog entries have (so far) remained posted, regardless of how critical. Although I would prefer that those posting comments identify themselves, anonymous comments are also accepted.

The only limitation is that advertising posing as comments will be removed. That is why, if one or more of the comments posted on this blog essay contained links to unrelated matter, they no longer appear here.
-- Nick