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Tuesday, 04 May 2010 10:23

Dr. J.’s BF Commentary No. 141: The BP Gusher Disaster: Politics and Policy

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STEVE JONAS FOR BUZZFLASH

First, let's call the Black Thing From the Center of the Earth (now there's a good movie title, no?) what it should be called.  It's not an "oil spill."  This is not the Exxon Valdez, with a very large but ultimately known and quantified amount of heavy crude oil spoiling an important but distant and self-limited piece of valuable land and seascape.  It's not an "oil slick," although that is a side feature of it in the places where the oil layer on the surface of the ocean is relatively thin.  It's not some simple "oil leak" (as British Petroleum [BP] likes to characterize it), like the one that dripped regularly from the oil pan of my aged-by-the-time-I-got-it 1956 Jaguar XK150. 

This one is an undersea gusher, this one is a disaster, and this one was presented to us by a combination of the oil company, BP, the Swiss company, Transocean, Ltd., which runs the drilling platform, and Halliburton (remember them?), the drilling services company that just happened to complete the "cementing" of the well and the associated pipe (in this case, a highly complex process with a very special kind of cement) just 20 hours before it blew.  Although there are at least two other major companies involved, I think that "BP Gusher Disaster" has a nice ring to it. And let's remember.  The Exxon Valdez disaster does have a corporate name attached to it, forever.

Given BP's now long-running ads about what an environmentally friendly oil company they are, showing interest in solar and wind (according to them), one might think that it is odd that they are at the center of this particular environmental calamity.  In terms of the number of lives and livelihoods ruined and the as yet undetermined historical length of its effects, it will likely go down in history with Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Agent Orange of Vietnam (the latter of course was a planned environmental catastrophe, not an accidental one) as having the most impact.  And here has been "all environmental" BP, with that cute little green/sun logo and all that.  Environmentally friendly?  Well listen to this one from ABC News (believe it or not), The Blotter: BP Fought Safety Measures at Deepwater Oil Rigs:

Owner of Louisiana Oil Well Objected to System That Would Have Shut Off Spill 30 Apr 2010 BP, the company that owned the Louisiana oil rig that exploded last week, spent years battling federal regulators over how many layers of safeguards would be needed to prevent a deepwater well from this type of accident. One area of immediate concern, industry experts said, was the lack of a remote system that would have allowed workers to clamp shut Deepwater Horizon's wellhead so it would not continue to gush oil. The rig is now spilling 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. In a letter sent last year to the Department of the Interior, BP objected to what it called 'extensive, prescriptive regulations' proposed in new rules to toughen safety standards. 'We believe industry's current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs…continue to be very successful.'

BP presumably shared in the view of some trade group called the "Offshore Operators Committee," which actually shared the following little missive with the Minerals and Management Service (MMS) of the Interior Department which was trying to get mandatory safety regulations instead of the Bush/industry "voluntary" ones in place (September 2, 2009): " 'What Do HURRICANES and New Rules Have in Common?' Both are disruptive to Operations and are costly to Recover From' ."  Oh dear.  Oh so costly.  Forgetting about unimaginable costs to the environment, to animals, to the livelihoods of Gulf fishermen whose families have been at it for generations, think just of the costs to BP, which might just include bankruptcy. Can't wait for the suits just between BP, Transocean Ltd., and Halliburton?  Me neither. 

A final note on Halliburton.  The attorney Mike Papantonio, who does the weekly left-wing radio program "Ring of Fire" with Bobby Kennedy, Jr. and is already one of the lead attorneys in the mushrooming set of suits on this one, was being interviewed by Mike Malloy on his program on April 30.  Mike allowed that Halliburton had been a very minor factor in off-shore drilling until after that infamous and still-secret meeting between Dick Cheney and top execs of the oil industry in December, 2000.  Halliburton is now on almost every US-related drilling platform.  Could be coincidence, of course.  Couldn't be, "well, you guys want this, like the War on Iraq to, in part, get their oil, and I do too, and deregulation, and I want a presence for Halliburton on your rigs," now could it?  Discovery got into tobacco company files deep enough to reveal that they were well aware of the risks to health from cigarette smoking back in the 1950s!!! Just think what those notes, if subject to the discovery process that Prof. Papantonio is aiming at them, might tell us.

Turning to the GOP and its political approach to the whole mess, why it's just fascinating.  Both its political leaders and its Propaganda Channel (formerly, under the Bush Regime, the Privatized Ministry of Propaganda, otherwise known as the Fox"News"Channel) can focus on practically nothing else than trying to make the whole thing into "Obama's Katrina."  That is exactly what they want to have the discussion, the debate, the political fight, focus on.  Obama was late.  Bush was no later.  Ergo, the BP Gusher Disaster (although they would never call it that) is Obama's Katrina.  Since two wrongs make a right, as O'Reilly has told us over and over again over the years, that's the end of the story.

As per usual, the Obama side is reacting defensively, if historically correctly.  For the first couple of days, BP was telling the Administration that they had everything under control.  They were also underestimating or deliberately understating the amount of oil that was gushing forth, while continuing to characterize it as a "leak" or a "spill."  Nevertheless, the Coast Guard was mobilized almost immediately.  Within a few days, one after another of the relevant Federal agencies were mobilized.  Nine days later, when it finally became clear how much minimization from BP had taken place, the event was labeled one of "national significance."  Boo, boo, boo said one GOP politician after another, with the echo chamber of the Propaganda Channel going 24 hours a day.  I will leave it to others to chronicle in detail the failures of the Bush Administration in the wake of Katrina, beginning with the disaster at the Super Dome.  But that is really beside the point.

On point are the following.  Katrina was a natural disaster, not preventable.  (Its worst outcomes, the flooding of the 9th Ward, were, however, preventable if the dike reconstruction that the Army Corps of Engineers had been asking for for 10 years had been funded either by the Clinton or the Bush Administrations.)  This one was apparently entirely preventable, with the installation of an automatic shut-off valve used in many other parts of the world that apparently is as close to fool-proof as such a device can be. The device costs a paltry $500,000 (paltry in relation to oil company profits, but that amount does impact the oil companies' bottom lines, donchaknow.)  But this is the last issue that the GOP wants to discuss. 

The GOP is the party of anti-regulation, donchaknow.  They are the party of "small government," which makes it extra-ironic that GOP/Tea Party shills like Hannity are screaming that the Obama Administration didn't jump in with both feet on Day One.  Gee, Sean, the "small government" approach means that honorable companies like BP will make sure that everything is just fine, all by themselves.  Doesn't it? 

And then there is dear Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, one of the few brown faces among the sea of white-faced GOP politicians, and a favorite of the "small government" crowd.  There he is, pleading with the Obama Administration to jump in with Federal aid as soon as possible.  Ohmygosh.  I wonder if Haley Barbour will be next?  If that happens what would GOPWorld be coming to?

And so here are the GOP tactics and strategy revealed in all their glory.  As Lee Atwater said, "Always attack; never defend."  I won't hold my breath, but it sure would be nice to hear such a broadside from the Democrats in general and the Obama Administration in particular as the GOP has opened itself up for, on that issue that is so central to their wholly-owned subsidiary's endless mantra: "small government, small government, small government."  No I won't do that (hold my breath), but boy, would I like to be surprised.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also Managing Editor and a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.