Monday, June 14, 2010

Seven Teachable Moments from the BP oil spill fiasco

First teachable moment --Ask your students why is it that we need to go to Rolling Stone magazine to gather some of the key truths about the BP oil spill debacle? Yes The New York Times and Washington Post did some nice reporting but the key points were often buried deep inside the jump pages. Out of all the quality newspapers perhaps the British Independent did the best news analysis. But leave it to the Rolling Stone magazine (as the excellent Matt Tabibi did with their excellent reporting on the Wall Street meltdown) to put the story together for the reasonably intelligent reader in a way that made sense. There was an avoidance of technicalities and overly complex sentences. Tim Dickinson in The Spill, The Scandal and the President: The inside story of how Obama failed to crack down on the corruption of the Bush years – and let the world's most dangerous oil company get away with murder, is must reading for anyone interested in placing the story in the relevant historical and political context.

So part of that first question is to ask to what extent does corporate ownership of the press (and which newspaper barons have investments in BP) have a role to play--how else do we explain the relentless focus on BP's role in all this and not that of the US government in enabling this awful situation?

Second teachable moment
--Have your students look at all the degrees of culpability involved in this tragedy not just BPs. As they do this let them examine the governments' role as they answer why the proper regulatory function of government is so critical. Dickinson makes a powerful case that the US government failure to properly oversee the management of oil rigs lies at the center of this tragedy.

"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."

The mess was never cleaned up and all that the Obama administration did despite repeated warnings that this was a rogue agency was to appoint an oil industry friend in the person of Ken Salazar to make one or two symbolic but futile gestures in the direction of cleaning up the agency. Dickinson fully backs up his assertion that

"Salazar .. worked hard to foster the impression that the "prior administration" is to blame for the catastrophe. In reality, though, the Obama administration was fully aware from the outset of the need to correct the lapses at MMS that led directly to the disaster in the Gulf. In fact, Obama specifically nominated Salazar – his "great" and "dear" friend – to force the department to "clean up its act." For too long, Obama declared, Interior has been "seen as an appendage of commercial interests" rather than serving the people. "That's going to change under Ken Salazar."

Third teachable moment --why was it that every single red light that could have notified us that something was not right with the process was ignored. Case in point. BP was allowed to make up nonsense to justify its drilling licenses and that nonsense even when it was clearly full of first grade mistakes remained unchallenged by everyone up and down the bureaucratic chain.

BP claims that a spill is "unlikely" and states that it anticipates "no adverse impacts" to endangered wildlife or fisheries. Should a spill occur, it says, "no significant adverse impacts are expected" for the region's beaches, wetlands and coastal nesting birds. The company, noting that such elements are "not required" as part of the application, contains no scenario for a potential blowout, and no site-specific plan to respond to a spill. Instead, it cites an Oil Spill Response Plan that it had prepared for the entire Gulf region. Among the sensitive species BP anticipates protecting in the semi-tropical Gulf? "Walruses" and other cold-water mammals, including sea otters and sea lions. The mistake appears to be the result of a sloppy cut-and-paste job from BP's drilling plans for the Arctic. Even worse: Among the "primary equipment providers" for "rapid deployment of spill response resources," BP inexplicably provides the Web address of a Japanese home-shopping network. Such glaring errors expose the 582-page response "plan" as nothing more than a paperwork exercise. "It was clear that nobody read it," says Ruch, who represents government scientists. Rick Steiner a retired marine science professor comments that "This response plan is not worth the paper it is written on," "Incredibly, this voluminous document never once discusses how to stop a deepwater blowout."

Fourth Teachable Moment--why is it that only one person so far has resigned over this Why are not more people including large numbers of high level bureaucrats who aided and abetted patently false statements allowed to continue in their jobs. Why are there no calls for Interior Secretary Salazar to resign? How does the President remain serious about the need for accountability in government as well as corporate board rooms when he allows such a reckless individual continue to head the Department of Interior he once pledged to clean up? Dickinson writes

"Had MMS been following the law, it would never have granted BP a categorical exclusion – which are applicable only to activities that have "no significant effect on the human environment." At a recent hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse grilled Salazar about Interior's own handbook on categorical exclusions, which bars their issuance for offshore projects in "relatively untested deep water" or "utilizing new or unusual technology" – standards that Whitehouse called "plainly pertinent" for BP's rig. "It's hard for me to see that that's a determination that could have been made in good faith," Whitehouse said, noting that the monstrously complex task of drilling for oil a mile beneath the surface of the ocean appeared to have been given less oversight than is required of average Americans rewiring their homes. "Who was watching?"Not the Interior secretary. 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."
This is unforgivable and Salazar should accept responsibility and the entire chain of command that allowed this keystone cop type of performance.

Fifth Teachable Moment

When should a company that so openly and plainly flaunts the rules be banned from operating? Why is it that their proposals are not treated with more than just an extra grain of scrutiny --the kind you might apply to a car loan or mortgage application? BP alone had 760 safety violations against the next worst oil company that had one. BPs' repeated low regard for safety issues it should be banned from doing business--particularly as risky a business as oil exploration.

"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.

BP has also cut corners at the expense of its own workers. In 2005, 15 workers were killed and 170 injured after a tower filled with gasoline exploded at a BP refinery in Texas. Investigators found that the company had flouted its own safety procedures and illegally shut off a warning system before the blast. An internal cost-benefit analysis conducted by BP – explicitly based on the children's tale The Three Little Pigs – revealed that the oil giant had considered making buildings at the refinery blast-resistant to protect its workers (the pigs) from an explosion (the wolf). BP knew lives were on the line: "If the wolf blows down the house, the piggy is gobbled." But the company determined it would be cheaper to simply pay off the families of dead pigs."

Sixth Teachable Moment

What will it take for President Obama to be more open about his administrations' somewhat cynical energy policy--and square the his campaign statements where he was opposed to more off shore drilling with his granting licenses for offshore drilling more freely than applications for daycare centers. Could it be that by hiding behind Salazar's pro oil industry he could finesse the situation in a way Dick Morris might have been proud of? Dickinson writes, "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."

"The administration, however, has made clear that it has no intention of reversing its plan to expand offshore drilling. Four weeks into the BP disaster, when Salazar was questioned in a Senate hearing about the future of the president's plan, he was happy to stand up for the industry's desire to drill at any cost. "Isn't it true," asked Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, "that as terrible as the tragedy is, that unless we want $14, $16, $18, $20-a-gallon gasoline, that it's not realistic to think that we would actually stop drilling for oil in the Gulf?" Unbowed by the catastrophe that was still unfolding on his watch, Salazar heartily agreed, testifying that the president had directed him to "move forward" on offshore drilling."

Seventh Teachable Moment

The facts seem to support that the administration made a calculation that things would be easier if it could pretend it was not involved and all the blame and clean up responsibilities could be saddled on BP's shoulders. But that story could not be sold even on a slow news day. The government was in no way just an innocent passive observer. Not only were they involved in enabling the mess that was forseeable, they were the only credible authority that could marshall the resources--the ships that could vacuum up the oil, berms and other material that could help save the coast.

"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..rom the start, the administration has seemed intent on allowing BP to operate in near-total secrecy. Much of what the public knows about the crisis it owes to Rep. Ed Markey, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. Under pressure from Markey, BP was forced to release footage of the gusher, admit that its early estimates put the leak as high as 14,000 barrels a day and post a live feed of its undersea operations on the Internet – video that administration officials had possessed from the earliest days of the disaster. "We cannot trust BP," Markey said. "It's clear they have been hiding the actual consequences of this spill."

Will any of these teachable moments make their way ever so slightly into our media conversation or into our classrooms? That is an open question but it is at the same time worth pondering your own role in helping to encourage such a debate.

1 comment:

  1. Great post--wonderful points and well-researched to boot. Also check out WSJ's reporting, which I think deserves a Pulitzer. They dig deep into the days just before the rig exploded through internal docs, interviews, etc.