Most of the blame for the BP oil disaster rests with BP, Big Oil, and its strong-arm supporters in Congress for the voluntary, “trust us,” self-regulation we have today (see St. Petersburg Times: “It’s becoming increasingly evident that self-regulation has not worked”). Some of the blame certainly resides with the Minerals Management Service, which became absurdly cozy with the industry under the Cheney-Bush administration (see “Flashback to 2008 MMS sex-for-oil scandal“).
That doesn’t let the Obama administration off the hook entirely. In theory they could have cleaned up the MMS from day one, but in practice Republicans made that task infinitely harder.
Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman spelled out some of the key background on MSNBC a couple weeks ago (starting around minute 5:55):
Olbermann: The BP shareholder who sued the company today, claiming that BP was knowingly cutting safety costs in violation of the commitments after the Texas refinery blast- Texas city. And spending $16 million to lobby against tougher regulation, by which I mean fight against any regulation. How long is that Bush era voluntary self-regulation regime going to last now?
Fineman: Well I think it’s going to end because its got to end. And I think that’s clear. What happened here is that BP presented a plan for drilling this deep well that was based on an earlier environmental impact statement of the whole Gulf of Mexico that was done under the Bush administration. And said “hey, the Bushies said it was fine, please approve this.” And the person at the Minerals Management Service that was supposed to take a close look at it said “Well, ok, if the overall plan was approved for the whole Gulf and it won’t cause serious environmental dangers then ill approve this specific one.” He basically waved the thing on through last April and now you see the result. As the Democrats I was talking to pointed out, there is a total conflict between what they said in that application for the lease, namely that they had systems that could control any damage that would happen, and what BP and Halliburton and everybody else is saying now which is “we’re trying everything because this is all a new thing to us.”
Okay, but could the new senior political appointees at Interior have done more in March 2009 to block BP’s drilling plan (which was sent in to MMS late February and approved in early April)?
Well, first, it’s worth pointing out that the Transocean platform had a very good safety record until this disaster, as 60 Minutes reported:
… the Deepwater Horizon cost $350 million, rose 378 feet from bottom to top. Both advanced and safe, none of her 126 crew had been seriously injured in seven years.
The safety record was remarkable, because offshore drilling today pushes technology with challenges matched only by the space program.
That was, of course, until BP got heavily involved in the details of the cementing process and testing in order to save a few bucks (see “Should you believe anything BP says?).
So I am not certain that this particular drilling plan would have had any obvious red flags — unless, of course, the handful of senior political appointees at Interior around in early 2009 were simply prepared to stop all new drilling.
CAPAF’s Tom Kenworthy has more background on how the GOP made such a scenario extremely unlikely:
You would think that in the wake of the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill that the petroleum industry’s water carriers in Congress would at least tamp down their “drill, baby drill” nonsense for a while. But not even what threatens to become the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history keeps those oil-soaked lawmakers from their self-appointed rounds.
Ten days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers and the failure of the rig’s blowout preventer began a gusher of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf, Sens. Robert Bennett (R-UT) and John Barrasso (R-WY) informed Department of Interior secretary Ken Salazar that they would introduce legislation to speed up oil and gas development on federal lands in the West and short-circuit the more thorough environmental reviews Salazar has undertaken.
“We remain deeply concerned by the major changes you proposed in January 2010 to the onshore oil and natural gas leasing program and its impact on communities in Utah and Wyoming,” the senators wrote. “As we have discussed with you on a number of occasions, oil and natural gas production is very important to the nation and particularly our states.”
This isn’t the first time Bennett and other western Republicans have interfered with the Obama administration’s ability to properly regulate oil and gas development. In early 2009 Bennett and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) blocked the confirmation of David Hayes, Salazar’s choice to be deputy secretary of the Interior Department. Their beef: Salazar had cancelled 77 oil and gas lease sales on western lands that had been drummed up in the last days of the Bush administration as a final gift to Big Oil, even though many of the parcels were close to some of Utah’s most iconic landscapes, including Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
As deputy secretary, Hayes is in charge of many day-to-day operations at Interior. He has been vital to the Obama administration’s response to the Gulf oil spill, and was on the scene on day two of the disaster.
Also last year, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), slowed down confirmation of two other key Interior officials, assistant secretary for land and minerals Wilma Lewis and Bureau of Land Management director Bob Abbey over concerns about legislation for an Arizona land swap. Lewis oversees the Minerals Management Service that regulates offshore oil development; Abbey’s BLM oversees onshore energy development.
During the Bush administration, as Salazar has noted, Interior became a “candy store” for the oil and gas industry. Between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2009, the department approved nearly 42,000 drilling permits on federal lands, nearly two and a half times the pace of the previous eight years.
Salazar, to his credit, put a stop to this open season assault on the West. Not only did he block the 77 Utah oil and gas leases pending further review, but he put the brakes on the Bush administration’s rush to develop oil shale deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming so their impacts on western water and other natural resources could be better understood. He moved to clean up the scandal-soaked Minerals Management Service. And after a probe by the Government Accountability Office found that the Bush administration policy of short-circuiting environmental reviews of oil and gas leasing decisions did not comply with the law, he instituted a new approach that will make the government look before it leaps into Big Oil’s arms. Oil and gas interests, he said, “do not own the nation’s public lands; taxpayers do.”
The Interior Department holds much of the responsibility for assuring that the nation’s oil and gas resources are developed in an environmentally responsible manner. As the GAO noted in a 2005 investigation, the department’s “ability to meet its environmental mitigation responsibilities for oil and gas development has been lessened by a dramatic increase in oil and gas operations on federal lands”¦.”
But that dramatic increase – there are now some 32 million acres of federal lands that have been leased but not yet developed by the oil and gas industry – isn’t enough for Sens. Bennett and Barrasso.
Salazar’s policies, said Bennett in a news release, “would add new bureaucracy and red tape to the oil and gas leasing program and significantly lengthen the amount of time before energy production could begin.”
Given what’s happening in the Gulf, a little more red tape and bureaucracy would be welcome.
So while team Obama could no doubt have done more, and I suppose one can construct scenario where they could have stopped this thing a mere two months after they came into office with one hand tied behind their backs by the GOP, in fact, it remains clear that the blame for the BP oil disaster rests with BP, the entire industry, and its strong-arm supporters in Congress for the voluntary, “trust us,” self-regulation we have today.