Did the GOP hamper Obama administration oversight of oil drilling?

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.

20 Responses to Did the GOP hamper Obama administration oversight of oil drilling?

  1. Chris Dudley says:

    It is sad that Salazar thinks the nation’s public lands belong to the taxpayers. They belong to the citizens and are held in trust for the future citizens. I’m quite sure that the future citizens have payed no taxes though we seem to expect them to cover what we have not payed. It is probably time for Salazar to resign since he does not seem to understand this pretty basic thing. The 24th Amendment bans such interpretations.

  2. mike roddy says:

    Your last paragraph sums it up well, Joe.

    Senators who are constantly pushing for less regulation and freewheeling gas and oil development are the same ones who promote more logging, and disasters like Bush’s “Clear Skies” initiative. Many are from Western states, and a few are Democrats.

    The common thread is that they have lost their connection to the land, which is puzzling when one considers that the American West is one of the most magnificent manifestations of creation that anyone could imagine.

    Senators like Bennett, Barasso, and Murkowski are talkers, not Westerners. Their time is spent in climate controlled offices in Washington DC, or at fundraisers and business friendly events in four star hotels back home. While being the first to wave the flag, they are not true Americans, because their indoor, schmoozing lives could just as easily be taking place in Singapore.

    The Republican outdoor macho types are even worse. Palin shoots wolves from helicopters, and Cheney goes all the way to Texas to blow doves out of the sky with a shotgun. For them, the wild is the enemy.

    The American voter needs to sharpen his ear for authenticity. The real American character is grounded in our love of the land, and all of its creatures. Louisianans are going to rediscover this side of themselves very soon.

  3. Bill Waterhouse says:

    Unfortunately it appears that the Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers – two agencies not used to being second-guessed – have made some slow and wrong moves. It looks like we don’t have enough booms and certainly not enough skimmers in La and the dispersants appear to have dispersed the oil below the surface making the booms ineffective. Pelican rookeries sound like they are entirely lost. Jindall scored lots of points on CNN yesterday against BP and the Feds. Don’t know whether Jindall is right about the Feds given his politics, or whether it’s really all BP’s failure to respond, but he has been the most attractive govt talking head on the MSM and on NPR.

    On NPR this am the coverage of BP’s so-called “legitimate damages” pledge didn’t mention ecosystem damages at all. No one seems to recgnize the long term cost to the ocean ecosystem, just fishing and shoreline economic impacts. If NPR doesn’t get it the MSM won’t.

  4. catman306 says:

    Thanks, Joe. More of this* please.

    *Stories and documentation of the involvement of lax regulators and the need for stronger regulations concerning the extraction of natural resources.

    Of course, natural resources belong to citizens, both present day and future. That’s called good stewardship.

    “Historically, stewardship was the responsibility given to household servants to bring food and drinks to a castle dining hall. The term was then expanded to indicate a household employee’s responsibility for managing household or domestic affairs. Stewardship later became the responsibility for taking care of passengers’ domestic needs on a ship, train and airplane, or managing the service provided to diners in a restaurant. The term continues to be used in these specific ways, but it is also used in a more general way to refer to a responsibility to take care of something owned by someone else. It is also doing something willingly without getting paid. Some religions consider humans to be stewards of the earth.”

  5. Russ Keane says:

    I think when Salazar says “belongs to the taxpayers” he means “belongs to the citizens”, so it’s not exactly fair to nitpick over semantics when his overall point is clear. At least he’s fighting and blocking the momentum of the push to open up everything to drilling and exploration for oil.

  6. Bill Waterhouse says:

    Watching BP’s Suttles spout his nonsense on CNN minutes ago. The hard truth is no one can completely clean up this mess. We now know and should figured out earlier that deep water drilling is too risky because we don’t have effective cleanup/mitigation capabilities.

    Feds are now in a no-win position: Let BP continue the now impossible cleanup task (by this I don’t mean to suggest that BP shouldn’t be doing a lot more to mitigate all that is possible) task and criticize BP’s failure or do a Fed take over the cleanup effort and then have the Feds own the ineffective cleanup.

  7. Andy Olsen says:

    The answer to the headline question is “no.”

    Let them write letters. Did Bush and Cheney allow letters from Democrats deter them from pursuing their agenda? No. Why should Obama-Biden let the Rs push them around?

  8. “Increasingly evident that self-regulation has not worked”

    Increasingly reads like an epitaph

  9. Mark says:

    At the Natural Resources Defense Council Switchboard blog, a staff attorney, David Pettit, has posted language in the Clean Water Act, which was amended through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, that appears clearly to vest the president with both the authority and the obligation to take the reins in a major oil spill where private actions have failed:

    (A) If a discharge, or a substantial threat of a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance from a vessel, offshore facility, or onshore facility is of such a size or character as to be a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States (including but not limited to fish, shellfish, wildlife, other natural resources, and the public and private beaches and shorelines of the United States), the President shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge or to mitigate or prevent the threat of the discharge.

  10. Peter Bellin says:

    Two points seem relevant to me:

    1. The focus of the story seems to be on what can be done about the spill, and to what degree did BP and the Obama administration ‘flub’ their response. Instead, the focus should be (as Joe blogged earlier) that the focus should be on the mentality of continuing to rely so much on oil and coal for energy as opposed to aggressively pursuing energy conservation and alternative energy supplies.

    2. The GOP obstructionism is ignored, and then the GOP focuses on the current administration’s failure to act effectively. I heard a snippet of conservative talk radio discussing air travel security. A Republican senator was condemning Obama for failing to appoint someone to head TSA – when Republicans have blocked his nominees for over a year!

    The Republican strategy of blocking effective action, then blaming the administration for failing to act effectively seems to pay off.

  11. Leif says:

    “Why should Obama-Biden let the Rs push them around?” Andy Olsen, # 7

    I would say it is because the Democrats have been making a concerted effort to be bipartisan. The people were feed up with the “winner take all” mentality of the GOP. That GOP mentality has transformed into “loser stop all” and has progressed to the Tea Baggers fundamentalism and if we cannot get our way no one else will either.

  12. robhon says:

    For those interested I just found this trajectory map of the oil spill on youtube.

  13. robhon says:

    BP still seems to be standing by that 5000 barrels a day figure which would have this disaster still be smaller than the Exxon Valdez disaster. I don’t trust their estimates and am trying to find a way to compare the current area of the BP spill with the Exxon Valdez.

  14. john atcheson says:

    I believe we are missing the larger issue here.

    This isn’t simply an oil problem, or a BP problem, it’s a manifestation of the failure of the philosophy that has taken over political thought in this country.

    The fault lies with the whole Ronnie Reagan “government is the problem” “private industry is the solution” mindset and the deregulation frenzy it unleashed, as well as the gutless Democrats who refuse to confront it.

    Private industry needs to be regulated, period. Government needs to be big enough and funded well enough to regulate it.

    Take an inventory of the disasters and crises that face us and each is rooted in the conservative myths and the Democrats refusal to confront them.

    Financial meltdown? Deregulation, (serial deregulation of the financial industry culminating in the repeal of Glass-Steagal — under Clinton) together with the refusal to regulate things that should have been (derivatives, hedge funds) brought the country to its knees.

    Broken health care system? (yes, it’s still broken) –Expecting private for-profit industry, with a fiduciary responsibility to generate wealth for their shareholder to also provide health.

    A Supreme Court that is an extension of the Chamber of Commerce? failure to confront Bush on Alito’s and Robert’s record as corporate shills.

    Katrina? An eviscerated FEMA, a failed energy policy, and falure to address climate change, failure to spend on dikes and levies …

    Climate change? Obama did pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat in Copenhagen — but it was a very small rabbit (4% reduction by 2020 against 1990 is a moral victory at best). Had we engaged in the debate more forcefully in the 20 years prior to Copenhagen he wouldn’t have had to settle for so little.

    The recent mine disaster? Deregulation.

    The BP spill? Deregulation.

    On and on it goes. Grover Norquist famously said that his goal was to shrink the beast[government] until you could drown it in a bathtub.

    Well, at a time when we need a second round of economic stimulus, we’re contemplating tax cuts. Shades of 1937 …

    The blame should be assigned to a failed economic and political philosophy, and to the cowards who will not confront it.

    As long as the national debate starts with the premise that “big gubmin’t caint do nothin right,” and that all good things will come from the private sector by pure serendipity, then BP spills and Big Branch mines and Katrinas, and Wall Street meltdowns and Health care ripoffs and climate half measures will continue.

    And yes, they may continue anyway if we attempt to confront the myths — but they may not, and we ought to make the attempt, because the outcome is certain if we don’t.

    So let’s not blame the scorpion for its stinger — blame ourselves for trusting him.

  15. Bill Waterhouse says:

    Suttles could quote Flounder from Animal House: “you screwed up — you trusted us.”

  16. robhon says:

    Here’s an attempt to scale the Exxon Valdez to the BP spill to each other. Last thing I read is that BP is saying that this spill is currently half of what the Exxon Valdez was. I don’t think that is accurate. This is definitely not a scientific analysis but my guess is the BP spill is already much larger and getting bigger by the day.

  17. Michael Tucker says:

    Everyone acts like this is the first and only deep water well that BP has drilled in the gulf. BP, with partners like ExxonMobil, has been drilling deep water wells in the gulf since at least 1999. Perhaps some may remember what hurricane Dennis did to their floating oil platform in 2005?

    The fact is this has been going on for some time now and the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the first major accident in our home waters. We are just now discovering that the oil industry is the only entity that has the technology and expertise (for better or worse) to deal with any problems that may arise at these extreme ocean depths. If the government wanted to “take over” the operation to stop the blowout, they would still need the same private sector technology that BP uses.

    We have no idea how long BP has been engaging in these cost cutting measures but we could have several more disasters waiting to erupt. We are completely at the mercy of the oil industry when it comes to these deep water oil wells and WE MUST have better government oversight. If a blowout cannot be prevented, or stopped once it occurs, then WE MUST STOP DEEP SEA OIL DRILLING!

  18. Thomas Frank’s 2008 book, “The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule”, details the background to this GOP debacle stretching back decades. Its main thrust is explained well on the Indiebound bookseller’s website at

    “Casting back to the early days of the conservative revolution, Frank describes the rise of a ruling coalition dedicated to dismantling government. But rather than cutting down the big government they claim to hate, conservatives have simply sold it off, deregulating some industries, defunding others, but always turning public policy into a private-sector bidding war. Washington itself has been remade into a golden landscape of super-wealthy suburbs and gleaming lobbyist headquarters—the wages of government-by-entrepreneurship practiced so outrageously by figures such as Jack Abramoff.

    It is no coincidence, Frank argues, that the same politicians who guffaw at the idea of effective government have installed a regime in which incompetence is the rule. Nor will the country easily shake off the consequences of deliberate misgovernment through the usual election remedies. Obsessed with achieving a lasting victory, conservatives have taken pains to enshrine the free market as the permanent creed of state.”

    The Wrecking Crew is beautifully written and really worth reading.

  19. mike roddy says:

    Something keeps gnawing at me: How could Obama and Salazar not have insisted on at least figuring out how much oil BP has been spilling? Citing their figures, and obeying some kind of no dive zone, is a little ridiculous.

  20. mo says:

    What has still not been explained or even reported in the Liberal Press, is why a month earlier, the Interior Dept looked into the BP oil drilling operations three times, and gave them a “thumbs up”…no problems here report….11 day before the explosion…Please have Obama and Salazar explain that….mo