Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government

May 26, 2010, 7:00 a.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho
Salazar Has Got to Go!

(bought to you by*)

All systems of government are capable of being bent and twisted beyond recognition, compared with their initial theoretical promise and potential -- democratic capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism.

The only limits on the pejoratives thrown by President Obama's opponents are the limits of human imagination. But one of their favorites is that he is a "socialist." That is so far off the mark as to be funnier than the best from Jon Stewart. Were that he were! To watch our democratic capitalism morph into democratic socialism -- a highly unlikely prospect at any time -- would cause me far less concern that what I see happening.

The real risk is that we have already allowed our democracy to morph into corporatism, rule by major corporations, unchecked by democratic institutions -- a form of fascism. (Although even fascism at least typically allows for a stronger role for government than what we seem to have today in a corporate-government ruling partnership.)

Consider this report from the New York Times: "In the days since President Obama announced a moratorium on permits for drilling new offshore oil wells and a halt to a controversial type of environmental waiver that was given to the Deepwater Horizon rig, at least seven new permits for various types of drilling and five environmental waivers have been granted, according to records." Ian Urbina, "Despite Moratorium, Drilling Projects Move Ahead," New York Times, May 24, 2010, p. A1.

The story gets worse, as I'll lay out in a moment; but for now just re-read that lead. This was not a call for a moratorium by the executive director of some environmental group. (There were those as well.) This was the President of the United States ordering a moratorium on drilling permits and environmental waivers.

Note that it was not even a order to stop pumping oil from offshore Gulf of Mexico wells -- as reasonable and understandable as such an order would be at this time. It was only a prohibition on more drilling in violation of the nation's environmental laws.

And how did his Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, and his corrupt Minerals Management Service, respond? Did they, as Oliver North once characterized as the appropriate response, "salute smartly and charge up the hill," canceling all pending applications for additional drilling? No. They totally ignored it, and continued business as usual with their powerful buddies in the oil industry, risking additional pollution of the Gulf from others utilizing BP's approach.

So what are we left with? The pollution in the Minerals Management Service has continued to spread just as BP's continuing pollution of the Gulf increasingly destroys the human and animal life from the depths of the ocean to the nation's southern coast.

And who has President Obama -- who as late as April 2 of this year was still functioning as cheerleader for the offshore drilling gang -- decided can best clean up these messes? Ken Salazar -- who has presided over the MMS mess for over a year, and either knew, should have known, or actually made worse, what was going on there -- is the fox in charge of cleaning up that chicken coop. And who's in charge of cleaning up the ongoing pollution? Why BP, of course; the very folks who got the waivers from the MMS that permitted them to drill without an environmental plan in the first place.

Here are some excerpts from "the rest of the story":

[S]ince the April 20 explosion on the rig, federal regulators have granted at least 19 environmental waivers for gulf drilling projects and at least 17 drilling permits, most of which were for types of work like that on the Deepwater Horizon shortly before it exploded . . ..

Asked about the permits and waivers, officials . . . pointed to public statements by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, reiterating that the agency had no intention of stopping all new oil and gas production in the gulf. . . .

[C]ritics say the moratorium has been violated or too narrowly defined to prevent another disaster. . . .

Since the explosion, federal regulators have been harshly criticized for giving BP’s Deepwater Horizon and hundreds of other drilling projects waivers from full environmental review and for failing to provide rigorous oversight of these projects. . . .

Mr. Obama announced on May 14 a moratorium on drilling new wells and the granting of environmental waivers.

“It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies,” Mr. Obama said. “That cannot and will not happen anymore.”

“We’re also closing the loophole that has allowed some oil companies to bypass some critical environmental reviews,” he added in reference to the environmental waivers.

But records indicated that regulators continued granting the environmental waivers and permits for types of work like that occurring on the Deepwater Horizon. . . .

At least six of the drilling projects that have been given waivers in the past four weeks are for waters that are deeper — and therefore more difficult and dangerous — than where Deepwater Horizon was operating. While that rig, which was drilling at a depth just shy of 5,000 feet, was classified as a deep-water operation, many of the wells in the six projects are classified as “ultra” deep water, including four new wells at over 9,100 feet. . . .

[O]one of the main justifications of the moratorium on new drilling was safety. . . .

And yet, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has classified some of the drilling types that have been allowed to continue as being . . . hazardous . . .. [T]here have been at least three major accidents involving spills, leaks or explosions on rigs in the gulf since 2002 caused by the drilling procedures still being permitted. . . .

Mr. Salazar, when pressed to explain why new drilling was being allowed, testified on May 18 that “there is no deep-water well in the O.C.S. that has been spudded — that means started — after April 20,” referring to the gulf’s outer continental shelf.

However, Newfield Exploration Company has confirmed that it began drilling a deep-water well in 2,095 feet of water after April 20. . . .

Among the types of drilling permits that the minerals agency is still granting are called bypass permits. These allow an operator to drill around a mechanical problem in the original hole to the original target from the existing wellbore.

Five days before the explosion, the Deepwater Horizon requested and received a revised bypass permit, which was the last drilling permit the rig received from the minerals agency before the explosion. The bore was created and it was the faulty cementing or plugging of that hole that has been cited as one of the causes of the explosion. . . .

Even before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the use of environmental waivers was a source of concern. In September 2009, the Government Accountability Office released a report concluding that the waivers were being illegally granted to onshore drilling projects.

This month, the Interior Department announced plans to restrict the use of the waivers onshore, though not offshore. . . .

The investigation, however, is likely to take months, and in the meantime the waivers are continuing to be issued. There is also a 60-day statute of limitations on contesting the waivers, which reduces the chances that they will be reversed if problems are found with the projects or the Obama administration’s review finds fault in the exemption process.

At least three lawsuits to strike down the waivers have been filed by environmental groups this month. The lawsuits argue that the waivers are overly broad and that they undermine the spirit of laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, which forbid drilling projects from moving forward unless they produce detailed environmental studies about minimizing potential risks.
Ian Urbina, "Despite Moratorium, Drilling Projects Move Ahead," New York Times, May 24, 2010, p. A1.

Even the most inattentive, blind and hardhearted of institutional executives usually respond to massive bad publicity in the mainstream media. The major problems involve matters that do not receive such public attention, and thus can be ignored -- often to the profit of the institution, even if to the loss of its customers and employees.

In this instance, it's not even clear that the otherwise sophisticated Obama Administration has even responded as one would expect from a public relations disaster.

But as tragic as are the consequences of America's most serious ecological disaster in history, there is an even more serious problem.

What has President Obama done during the last year-plus with regard to other abuses of the public trust that may be going on in the federal government? What has he done proactively, preemptively, to avoid the corruption and agency capture by industry elsewhere than at the MMS? To what extent does he care; and how has that care been manifest -- beyond running through the playbook after the disasters occur?

I can't begin to list all the possible places to look, but here are a few: President Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" (the Defense Department-defense contractor revolving door; Congressional pressure for weapons systems the military don't want or need); the "cozy relationship" (to use Obama's characterization) between the industry that is supposed to be regulated and, say, the FAA, FDA, OSHA, MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration; think Massey Coal and 29 dead), SEC, agricultural and other subsidy and price support programs. The list is endless.

Has President Obama initiated any inquiries into general Washington "coziness"? Has he provided any, specific, instructions to his appointees on this score? Is he aware that he is the CEO of an organization with hundreds of otherwise-hidden agencies, any one of which is a potential political weapon of mass destruction?

I recall a companion once commenting as the driver of the car in front of him was seemingly unable to bring himself to proceed beyond a "Yield" sign: "Hey, it says 'yield,' not capitulate completely!"

I fear that we as a nation have also passed beyond merely yielding to corporate control to the place where we have capitulated completely. We're not even running a reputable fascist state anymore.

The first step on the road to reform is to get rid of Secretary Salazar. The second is to acknowledge that the problem is systemic and that the removal of one cabinet officer isn't going to clean up either corruption in government or oil pollution in the Gulf.

* 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
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John Neff said...

One possible objective of a terrorist organization is to cause the citizens to lose confidence in their government. In our case they can sit back and relax while our government officials destroy confidence in their ability to govern.

There is something (in addition to alcohol) in DC that interferes with brain function.

Steve Groenewold said...

Is there ever going to be any hope of serious campaign reform? Even then, it's not just the money paid to candidates on the front end. It's also the golden ticket into multi-million-dollar-salaried lobbyist jobs that await the unfortunate few who get voted out of office.

Oh, for a thousand more Jim Leachs.

Anonymous said...

Nick, this is a great story on how the corporations of this country (and worldwide)care only about profits,and that the leadership is corrupt and flawed.

But I hope that you cover intensely the case of the University of Iowa student who went missing this past year, that was documented in the Gazette. That story is horrendous in revealing the callous attitude of the the University of Iowa, the utter incompetence of the leadership, and the vile ideas they espouse.

If Tom Rocklin (leader at the U of Iowa) isn't the perverse jerk of the year and possibly the century so far locally he is certainly in the argument.

Come on folks, if we jump on Barack Obama's response to a UK company's offshore shenanigans, then we need to hold Sally Mason responsible for the sick corruption of the health and welfare of U of Iowa students.

There should be either an Iowa City Tea Party or a boycott by students of classes until their leadership is held accountable for their heinous decisions and corruption.

If the BOR and the Iowa Legislature doesn't investigate the U of Iowa for gross negligence then those bodies are culpable too.

Nick said...

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-- Nick