Friday, May 28, 2010

Michael T. Klare: The Oil Catastrophe

The Oil Catastrophe

By Michael T. Klare
The May 27, 2010 - in the June 14th edition of The Nation

It's hard to grasp the magnitude of the ecological catastrophe unfolding in
the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. At
this point no one is certain how much oil is pouring from the well into the
surrounding ocean. BP, adopting an early government estimate, has claimed
that it amounts to a mere 5,000 barrels a day, but some scientists say the
amount is closer to 60,000 or 70,000 barrels. Taking the lesser of these
estimates, that would translate into the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill
every four days. Given that this has been going on for five weeks at the
time of this writing, the gulf has by now absorbed nine such spill
equivalents, with more to come. But picturing the 1989 Exxon Valdez
spill-until now the largest in US waters-and multiplying by nine does not
begin to convey the scale of the disaster. For the first time in history,
oil is pouring into the deep currents of a semi-enclosed sea, poisoning the
water and depriving it of oxygen so that entire classes of marine species
are at risk of annihilation. It is as if an underwater neutron bomb has
struck the Gulf of Mexico, causing little apparent damage on the surface but
destroying the living creatures below.

Who bears responsibility for this unmitigated catastrophe? What should be
done in response?

Beginning with the first question, it is evident that a host of actors bear
responsibility, from the drilling managers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig
to the BP officials who oversaw their work to the government regulators who
awarded the corporations blanket waivers to ignore required environmental
assessments. But, as in all matters that derive from broad strokes of
policy, this disaster bears the imprint of the ultimate deciders: presidents
George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

What can be determined from the information available is that the April 20
explosion occurred because BP managers were in a hurry to seal off the well
so they could move the rig (which BP leased from Transocean for $500,000 per
day) to another drilling location. To speed up the move, BP's managers
evidently approved the risky exit procedure that led to the lethal
explosion. At one level, then, responsibility can be laid at the feet of the
managers involved in that decision as well as of Cameron International, the
manufacturer of the rig's blowout preventer, which appears to have been
defective. These managers operated in a corporate culture that favored
productivity and profit over safety and environmental protection.

BP, which has boasted of its success in boosting oil production in the gulf,
has a sordid history when it comes to safety. Last October it was fined $87
million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for failing to
correct safety problems discovered after a 2005 explosion that killed
fifteen workers at BP's Texas City refinery-the largest such fine ever
levied by OSHA. Like other firms operating in the gulf, BP has also sought a
blanket exemption from requirements that it conduct an environmental impact
assessment for each new offshore well it drills.

But corporate officials and their parent companies did not operate in a
political vacuum. BP and its subcontractors were able to drill in this
location, some forty miles off the Louisiana shore, because the government,
first under Bush and then under Obama, has been keen to increase production
in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Ever since it became clear, in the
1990s, that oil output at Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska was in irreversible
decline and that no other onshore location in the continental United States
could provide increased levels of petroleum, the government has sought to
boost output from the deepwater gulf to moderate the nation's growing
dependence on imported energy. To that end, the Bush administration proposed
to open up new areas for drilling, including the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge (ANWR) and the Outer Continental Shelf, and to facilitate the efforts
of giant energy firms to exploit these resources.

Bush was never able to persuade Congress to approve drilling in ANWR. But he
did succeed in expanding drilling in other areas, including the deepwater
gulf. Bush's principal instrument in these endeavors was the Minerals
Management Service (MMS), the branch of the Interior Department responsible
for providing leases for offshore drilling as well as collecting the fees
and royalties the companies paid for operating in federal waters.

Intended largely to promote offshore drilling, the MMS was also responsible
for ensuring that all such operations complied with the National
Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and other environmental
laws. Full adherence to these laws could have slowed the expansion of
drilling or blocked it altogether-but the MMS provided the leases without
making the companies, including BP, obtain required environmental permits.
MMS officials routinely ignored warnings from the agency's own scientists
and from those at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that
this sort of deepwater drilling posed a risk of massive oil spills with
devastating consequences for protected marine species. Such preferential
treatment for industry is hardly surprising, given the cozy-in some cases
criminal-relationships that developed between senior MMS officials and their
corporate counterparts.

Enter the Obama administration. Obama has been deeply critical of his
predecessor's environmental policies and has promised to place fresh
emphasis on developing alternative fuels-but he has shown little inclination
to reverse the nation's growing reliance on offshore oil. As it did under
Bush, the MMS has continued to award leases for offshore drilling in the
gulf without requiring environmental scrutiny. In October the agency gave
Shell Oil preliminary approval to drill in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska's
northern coast, despite warnings from scientists within and outside the
agency that any spill in these far northern waters would have catastrophic
environmental repercussions. Then on March 30-three weeks before the
Deepwater Horizon disaster-Obama announced he would permit offshore drilling
in additional areas of the gulf as well as in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas
above Alaska and off the East Coast. Although Obama supposedly took this
step in part to win support from Senate Republicans for the proposed
climate-protection bill, it also reflects his belief, inherited from Bush,
that the United States must produce more domestic oil to reduce its reliance
on imports.

Since the gulf explosion, the administration has taken several halfhearted
steps to slow the drive for increased deepwater drilling. It placed a
moratorium on awarding new offshore leases, although the MMS reportedly has
continued to give these away. It has also announced plans to break up the
MMS into several independent agencies-with separate bodies responsible for
awarding leases, collecting revenues and providing environmental
oversight-in order to prevent a future conflict of interest. All these
bodies, however, will remain within the Interior Department, and it is
unclear if the White House really has the will to curb risky offshore

What can we learn from all this? It should be obvious that merely tightening
safety and environmental procedures on offshore rigs will not be enough to
prevent further environmental ruin. As long as the major energy firms
continue to rest future profits on wells in ever-deeper waters-and
government regulators collude with them in this-more catastrophes are
inevitable. Clearly, it's policy that has to change, not its implementation.

To prevent more ecological disasters, President Obama has to acknowledge the
fallacy of his offshore-drilling plan and place a moratorium on all drilling
in the Arctic, the Atlantic and new areas of the Gulf of Mexico while the
government and industry determine whether it will ever be safe to operate in
these waters. As BP's inept response to the crisis shows, the giant firms
lack the capacity to control leaks in deep offshore waters, and so any
approval of new wells in the gulf must be contingent on developing safety
and cleanup technologies equal to the task. In the meantime, every effort
must be made to speed the introduction of alternative fuels that pose fewer
threats to the natural environment.

Michael T. Klare

No comments:

Post a Comment