Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obama's Options: What He Can And Should Say About The Oil Spill

When the nation is threatened, it turns to its president. And with the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico now in its 38th day, President Obama needs to lead.

Obama has appeared almost scarily unengaged from what the public increasingly recognizes is a genuine national emergency. When he goes before the press corps and the nation this afternoon, he faces a fateful choice: Will he respond with another of his now-familiar outbursts of anger with no follow-through? Or will he take charge of the national response and announce a clear plan of action?

When it comes to stopping the leak itself, which is obviously everyone's top priority, there's not necessarily anything Obama can do that BP isn't doing already. But that doesn't mean there aren't other compelling steps he could announce that would improve the government's response to the disaster and move him from its sidelines to its forefront.

Based on interviews with a slew of experts, here are some suggestions:

  • Obama should make it clear that BP is no longer the final decision maker -- about anything. He should also establish that nobody in government is taking anything BP says on face value anymore. The company's track record speaks for itself. And its motives, especially when it comes to assessing the effects of the blowout, are inherently suspect. Given the liability it faces, one of BP's key objectives at this point is inevitably to limit how much of the damage the public or the authorities are actually able to see.
  • Obama should demand -- and promise -- complete transparency, both from BP and his own administration. It's not enough to describe what assets are in place. BP and the federal agencies involved in the response need to be much more upfront about what they are doing -- and, perhaps even more importantly, about the leak's effects.
  • That must include an honest assessment of how much oil has actually flowed into the Gulf, how much continues to gush out, where it's going, and what it's doing to the ocean, not just the shoreline. Thus far, official estimates of the oil flow have been embarrassingly unrealistic. BP has been clamping down on information about the shoreline cleanup. And an even bigger failing has been the government's continued blindness to the devastating effects the oil is having under the surface. Exhaustive testing needs to start immediately, and be made public.
  • Obama should announce that he is revisiting the use of dispersants. It's not just that the one BP continues to use despite an EPA stop-order is toxic. It's that what dispersants do, at heart, is spread the oil out over a larger volume of water. With a spill this big, that might actually be exactly the wrong approach.
  • In fact, Obama should be charging BP and his own scientists and agencies to come up with better ways to concentrate the oil in one place and remove it before it further damages the Gulf or its shorelines.
Finally, although it may be too late, Obama should still try to seize the moment to rally public support against the policies that contributed to this crisis.
  • As environmentalists have been saying for weeks, the spill is a teachable moment that Obama could use to galvanize the nation behind significant energy and climate-change legislation that would aggressively wean the nation off fossil fuels.
  • Similarly, Obama missed an opportunity to call attention to the near-complete regulatory failure that led up to the disaster, as a way of reminding the nation of the need for a government that actively protects the interests of its people against those who would otherwise pursue profit without limits. He is already expected to call for tougher safety requirements and more rigorous inspections on off-shore drilling operations as well as an extended moratorium on new drilling and the cancellation of some offshore leases. He should go further and call for a full-scale review and revival of government regulation across the board -- declaring a definitive end to eight years of irresponsibility by the George W. Bush crew, and a year and a half of lethargy by his own team.
But little of this is likely to happen. Instead, the Gulf oil spill risks turning into an object lesson in ineffective leadership and the corporate capture of government -- precisely the opposite of the lessons we expected Obama to teach the nation.

So far, certainly, there's been nothing about Obama's response to this disaster that inspires hope; while way too much of it breeds cynicism.

Granted, none of the experts interviewed by the Huffington Post were able to come up with satisfactory solutions to the basic problem that don't involve time machines.

When it comes to job one -- stopping more oil from gushing out -- even the most can-do among engineers aren't optimistic, should "Top Kill" fail. "Trying to plug this oil at 5,000 feet is a bit pot luck," said John Large, a British consulting engineer who helped recover the Kursk, a Russian nuclear submarine that sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in 2000. "I would say generally, in engineering terms, this is a real mind-blower."
BP "failed to see what could go wrong," he told HuffPost, and as a result, engineers are relegated to cooking up ad hoc solutions, each of which carries with it the distinct chance it will make things worse rather than better.

"The more debris, the more bits of kit and fouled schemes that you put down there, the more difficult it is for the next operation to have a clear run," he said. "And of course you can worsen the damage."

At this point, however, the "Top Kill" option does seem to hold some promise, followed by the "Junk Shot".
And while Sam Stein reports for the Huffington Post that Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is among those calling for Obama to send in the military if the "Top Kill" fails, it's unclear what even they could do about it. (Blowing the damn thing up has been ruled out as an option.)

Meanwhile, one of BP's initial decisions -- to use dispersants to break up the oil -- is increasingly being questioned. BP has applied an unprecedented 815,000 gallons of dispersant to the spill so far, and more every day.

But marine scientists point out that dispersants don't actually reduce the amount of oil entering the environment, they just change where the oil goes. And while dispersants make complete sense when trying to break up a small slick headed for a fragile shoreline, they may not when dealing with a massive deep-sea spill.

The National Research Council's canonical guide to Oil Spill Dispersants: Efficacy and Effects explains:
Dispersant application... represents a conscious decision to increase the hydrocarbon load (resulting from a spill) on one component of the ecosystem (e.g., the water column) while reducing the load on another (e.g., coastal wetland). Decisions to use dispersants, therefore, involve trade-offs between decreasing the risk to water surface and shoreline habitats while increasing the potential risk to organisms in the water column and on the seafloor.
Or, as Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with the ocean conservation group Oceana, puts it: "Whether or not dispersants are a good idea depends on whether you're a seabird or a fish."

They're also a good idea, of course, if you're trying to keep as much of the oil as possible out of sight.
BP "clearly want to limit the amount of oil coming to shore; that's what people see," Rick Steiner, a veteran marine conservation consultant told McClatchy Newspapers. "If they can limit the amount of oil in evidence, they can limit the public outrage and likely pay less financial damages down the road."

Some scientists think dispersing this spill could be exactly the wrong approach. Eric Adams, an environmental engineer at MIT, is an expert both in deep-sea leaks and dispersants. After stemming the leak, the second priority is removing as much of the oil as possible from the water, he told HuffPost. And spreading it around only makes that harder.

Adams thinks responders should explore "if you could put a shroud around the plume, and guide the plume up to the water surface." Then, instead of making a thin slick, the oil "would stay within the relatively small diameter of this curtain, and it would allow you to collect it."

Adams's thinking dovetails with statements by John Hofmeister, a former CEO of Shell Oil, who told MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan on Tuesday that authorities should bring in supertankers to suck in seawater and oil .

Throughout the last five weeks, the lack of information has been driving scientists crazy.

"We potentially have huge consequences going on in the water column," said Carys Louise Mitchelmore, an associate professor in environmental chemistry and toxicology with the University of Maryland.

"I was just shocked at how limited and poor quality the BP data set was," she told HuffPost. "They've got to assess the harm that's going on in the water column," she said. "We don't know if you've got snowing dead organisms out there right now."

And while those organisms may not be as "charismatic" as the larger animals, Mitchelmore said, if they die then the larger animals will starve to death.

Echoing the cry of other researchers, Savitz said that more transparency is imperative. If nothing else, she said, "making as much information public as possible would help us draw on the cumulative expertise of our country and beyond."

Dan Froomkin is the Senior Washington Correspondent for the Huffington Post. Previously, he wrote the White House Watch column for the Washington Post’s website. He began his journalism career as a reporter at the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, the Miami Herald and the Orange County (Calif.) Register before being awarded a Michigan Journalism Fellowship in 1995. He then served as Editor of New Media for Education Week, and as Senior Producer, Metro Editor, and ultimately Editor of He is also Deputy Editor of, a website from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University devoted to encouraging accountability journalism. Here is an archive of his White House Watch columns from the Bush administration. Dan welcomes your email and can be reached at

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Laying bare the myth of "the left"

The Obama administration has betrayed progressive principles on one issue after another: Where's the outrage?

By David Sirota

I'm always amused by popular references to the allegedly all-powerful American "left." The term suggests that progressives today possess the same kind of robust, ideologically driven political apparatus as the right — a machine putting principles before party affiliation.

This notion is hilarious because it is so absurd.

Yes, there are certainly well-funded groups in Washington that call themselves "progressive," that get media billing as "the left," and that purport to advocate liberal causes regardless of party. But unlike the right's network, which has sometimes ideologically opposed Republicans on court nominations and legislation, many "progressive" institutions are not principled at all — sadly, lots of them are just propagandists for Democrats, regardless of what Democrats do.

Everyone in professional "left" politics knows this reality "deep down in places they don't talk about at parties," as Jack Nicholson might say — and they don't discuss it for fear of jeopardizing their employers' nonprofit tax status or undermining their employers' dishonest fundraising appeals to liberal donors' ideals.

During the Bush years, this truth was easily obscured, as bashing the Republican president for trampling progressive initiatives was equivalent to aiding Democrats. But in the Obama era, the "the left's" destructive, party-over-principles motivation has become impossible to hide, especially recently.

Behold, for instance, major environmental groups' attitude toward the Gulf oil spill.

We know that before the disaster, President Obama recklessly pushed to expand offshore drilling. We also know that his Interior Department gave British Petroleum's rig a "categorical exclusion" from environmental scrutiny and, according to the New York Times, "gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf without first getting required [environmental] permits." Worse, we know that after the spill, the same Interior Department kept issuing "categorical exclusions" for new Gulf oil operations, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar still refuses "to rule out continued use of categorical exclusions," as the Denver Post reported (heckuva job, Kenny!).

Undoubtedly, had this been the behavior of a Republican administration, "the left's" big environmental organizations would be scheduling D.C. protests and calling for firings, if not criminal charges. Yet, somehow, there are no protests. Somehow, there have been almost no calls for the resignation of Salazar, who oversaw this disaster and who, before that, took $323,000 in campaign contributions from energy interests and backed more offshore drilling as a U.S. senator. Somehow, facing environmental apocalypse, there has been mostly silence from "the left."

That silence is similarly deafening when it comes to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

We know Kagan was among the Clinton administration advisors urging the president to support a serious abortion restriction and to resist efforts to reduce racist disparities in criminal sentencing. We know that as Harvard Law School dean, Kagan "hired 29 tenured or tenure-track faculty members [and] did not hire a single black, Latino, or American Indian — not one, not even a token," reports Duke University's Guy-Uriel Charles. And we know that in her solicitor general confirmation hearings, Kagan stated her radical belief that the government can hold terrorism suspects without trial.

Again, if this were a Republican nominee's record, "the left's" pro-choice and civil rights groups would be frantically mounting opposition — or at least raising concerns. But this is a Democratic nominee, so they've fallen in line. Planned Parenthood celebrated Kagan's "dedication," the NAACP trumpeted her "commitment to diversity," and the liberal Alliance for Justice said it "applauds" her nomination.

Surveying the hypocrisy, CNN's Roland Martin wrote that "the left's" organizations "need to decide what matters: their principles or their politics ... their convictions or chicken dinners in the White House."

He's too late: They've already made their decision, which is why — regrettably — a powerful left does not exist in America.

David Sirota is the author of the bestselling books "Hostile Takeover" and "The Uprising." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado and blogs at E-mail him at or follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

No, GOP, you can't have the car keys back

Barack Obama seems to be finally realizing that the GOP needs to be confronted, not coddled.

By Gene Lyons

One minor mystery of the Obama administration is whether the president has actually believed that the nation's most intractable problems could be solved by the wonder-working power of bipartisanship and the emollient balm of his personality. He wouldn't be the first politician whose ego convinced him he could sweet-talk his bitterest opponents.

Many Democrats think that the White House's ultimately futile quest for Republican healthcare votes only gave GOP imagineers more time to frighten gullible voters with falsehoods about "death panels" and such, weakening public support.

Until quite recently, it's been much the same with jobs and the economy. Despite unanimous Republican opposition to the administration's $787 billion stimulus bill and universal predictions of doom, the White House has often acted as if the party's reasonable leadership would eventually return to the politics of negotiation and compromise.

Instead, we've seen the GOP increasingly dominated by its irrational Chicken Little wing, seeing grim portents and predicting doom. Continuing their party's decades-long War on Arithmetic, Republicans act as if the highest form of patriotism is to demand tax cuts even as a USA Today analysis documents that "Americans paid their lowest level of taxes last year since Harry Truman's presidency ... Federal, state and local taxes -- including income, property, sales and other taxes -- consumed 9.2 percent of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports."

The historic average has been 12 percent.

Along with the recession, the main reason was the Obama stimulus bill, which included one of the largest tax cuts for wage-earners in U.S. history, totaling $282 billion. Republicans opposed it anyway. Almost everybody got a substantial tax break, even if Tea Party patriots don't realize it.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the U.S. economy generated 290,000 jobs in April, the strongest month in four years. That brings new jobs created in 2010 to 573,000.

And how did GOP savants respond to the good news? Citing the unemployment rate, House Minority Leader John Boehner called it "disappointing news ... Washington Democrats have no coherent agenda to create jobs, and no interest in doing anything but continue to spend money we don't have on 'stimulus' programs that don't work."

Don't work? The National Journal's Ronald Brownstein puts things in perspective: "If the economy produces jobs over the next eight months at the same pace as it did over the past four months, the nation will have created more jobs in 2010 alone than it did over the entire eight years of George W. Bush's presidency." It's a fact. Should current growth persist, the U.S. economy will gain roughly 1.7 million jobs this year. From 2001 through 2008, the Bush economy generated about 1 million.

Of course, with 15.3 million Americans out of work, we're far from being out of the woods. Indeed, the nation's quickening economy has actually led to a slight uptick in the unemployment rate, as thousands who'd given up seeking work rejoined the labor market. But we can definitely see a path to greater prosperity.

Meanwhile, Republicans keep baying at the moon. On a recent "Fox News Sunday," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gravely announced that "The [Obama] secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did."

Even host Chris Wallace was taken aback, asking, "Mr. Speaker, respectfully, isn't that wildly over the top?" Gingrich didn't think so.

A sane political movement would keep a prating coxcomb like Gingrich off television. Whether Newt actually believes this rubbish, or is merely following the Tea Party fife and drum corps around the bend, strikes me as of little interest. Politically, it's pointless to reason with crazy people -- make-believe or real.

Speaking recently in Buffalo, President Obama signaled that maybe he gets it. "When I took office," he said, "we were losing 750,000 jobs a month ... I had just inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit from the previous administration, so the last thing I wanted to do was to spend money on a recovery package, or help the American auto industry keep its doors open, or prevent the collapse of Wall Street banks whose irresponsibility had helped cause this crisis. But what I knew was if I didn't act boldly and I didn't act quickly ... we could have risked an even greater disaster."

Then, at a Manhattan fundraiser, Obama came up with the perfect metaphor. He said that Republicans had made a calculated decision to oppose all White House initiatives, and to hope for the worst. "So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. No! You can't drive! We don't want to have to go back into the ditch! We just got the car out!"

Give 'em hell, Barack. Over and over until they get the message.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Gulf spill is no fluke

As corporations pursue extreme energy sources, a new oil rush endangers the planet

Yes, the oil spewing up from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico in staggering quantities could prove one of the great ecological disasters of human history.  Think of it, though, as just the prelude to the Age of Tough Oil, a time of ever increasing reliance on problematic, hard-to-reach energy sources.  Make no mistake: We’re entering the danger zone.  And brace yourself, the fate of the planet could be at stake.

It may never be possible to pin down the precise cause of the massive explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20th, killing 11 of its 126 workers.  Possible culprits include a faulty cement plug in the undersea oil bore and a disabled cutoff device known as a blow-out preventer.  Inadequate governmental oversight of safety procedures undoubtedly also contributed to the disaster, which may have been set off by a combination of defective equipment and human error.  But whether or not the immediate trigger of the explosion is ever fully determined, there can be no mistaking the underlying cause: a government-backed corporate drive to exploit oil and natural gas reserves in extreme environments under increasingly hazardous operating conditions.

The New Oil Rush and Its Dangers

The United States entered the hydrocarbon era with one of the world’s largest pools of oil and natural gas.  The exploitation of these valuable and versatile commodities has long contributed to the nation’s wealth and power, as well as to the profitability of giant energy firms like BP and Exxon.  In the process, however, most of our easily accessible onshore oil and gas reservoirs have been depleted, leaving only less accessible reserves in offshore areas, Alaska, and the melting Arctic.  To ensure a continued supply of hydrocarbons -- and the continued prosperity of the giant energy companies -- successive administrations have promoted the exploitation of these extreme energy options with a striking disregard for the resulting dangers.  By their very nature, such efforts involve an ever increasing risk of human and environmental catastrophe -- something that has been far too little acknowledged.

The hunt for oil and gas has always entailed a certain amount of risk.  After all, most energy reserves are trapped deep below the Earth’s surface by overlying rock formations.  When punctured by oil drills, these are likely to erupt in an explosive release of hydrocarbons, the well-known "gusher" effect.  In the swashbuckling early days of the oil industry, this phenomenon -- familiar to us from movies like "There Will Be Blood" -- often caused human and environmental injury.  Over the years, however, the oil companies became far more adept at anticipating such events and preventing harm to workers or the surrounding countryside. 

Now, in the rush to develop hard-to-reach reserves in Alaska, the Arctic, and deep-offshore waters, we’re returning to a particularly dangerous version of those swashbuckling days.  As energy companies encounter fresh and unexpected hazards, their existing technologies -- largely developed in more benign environments -- often prove incapable of responding adequately to the new challenges.  And when disasters occur, as is increasingly likely, the resulting environmental damage is sure to prove exponentially more devastating than anything experienced in the industrial annals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Deepwater Horizon operation was characteristic of this trend.  BP, the company which leased the rig and was overseeing the drilling effort, has for some years been in a rush to extract oil from ever greater depths in the Gulf of Mexico.  The well in question, known as Mississippi Canyon 252, was located in 5,000 feet of water, some 50 miles south of the Louisiana coastline; the well bore itself extended another 13,000 feet into the earth.  At depths this great, all work on the ocean floor has to be performed by remotely-controlled robotic devices overseen by technicians on the rig.  There was little margin for error to begin with, and no tolerance for the corner-cutting, penny-pinching, and lax oversight that appears to have characterized the Deepwater Horizon operation.  Once predictable problems did arise, it was, of course, impossible to send human troubleshooters one mile beneath the ocean’s surface to assess the situation and devise a solution.

Drilling in Alaska and the Arctic poses, if anything, even more perilous challenges, given the extreme environmental and climatic conditions to be dealt with.  Any drilling rigs deployed offshore in, say, Alaska’s Beaufort or Chukchi Seas must be hardened to withstand collisions with floating sea ice, a perennial danger, and capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and powerful storms.  In addition, in such hard-to-reach locations, BP-style oil spills, whether at sea or on land, will be even more difficult to deal with than in the Gulf.  In any such situation, an uncontrolled oil flow is likely to prove lethal to many species, endangered or otherwise, which have little tolerance for environmental hazards.

The major energy firms insist that they have adopted ironclad safeguards against such perils, but the disaster in the Gulf has already made mockery of such claims, as does history.  In 2006, for instance, a poorly-maintained pipeline at a BP facility ruptured, spewing 267,000 gallons of crude oil over Alaska’s North Slope in an area frequented by migrating caribou.  (Because the spill occurred in winter, no caribou were present at the time and it was possible to scoop up the oil from surrounding snow banks; had it occurred in summer, the risk to the Caribou herds would have been substantial.)

If It’s Oil, It’s Okay

Despite obvious hazards and dangers, as well as inadequate safety practices, a succession of administrations, including Barack Obama’s, have backed corporate strategies strongly favoring the exploitation of oil and gas reservoirs in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and other environmentally sensitive areas.

On the government’s side, this outlook was first fully articulated in the National Energy Policy (NEP) adopted by President George W. Bush on May 17, 2001.  Led by former Halliburton CEO Vice President Dick Cheney, the framers of the policy warned that the United States was becoming ever more dependent on imported energy, thereby endangering national security.  They called for increased reliance on domestic energy sources, especially oil and natural gas.  "A primary goal of the National Energy Policy is to add supply from diverse sources," the document declared.  "This means domestic oil, gas, and coal."

As the NEP made clear, however, the United States was running out of conventional, easily tapped reservoirs of oil and natural gas located on land or in shallow coastal waters.  "U.S. oil production is expected to decline over the next two decades, [while] demand for natural gas will most likely continue to outpace domestic production," the document noted.  The only solution, it claimed, would be to increase exploitation of unconventional energy reserves -- oil and gas found in deep offshore areas of the Gulf of Mexico, the Outer Continental Shelf, Alaska, and the American Arctic, as well as in complex geological formations such as shale oil and gas.  "Producing oil and gas from geologically challenging areas while protecting the environment is important to Americans and to the future of our nation’s energy security," the policy affirmed.  (The phrase in italics was evidently added by the White House to counter charges -- painfully accurate, as it turned out -- that the administration was unmindful of the environmental consequences of its energy policies.)

First and foremost among the NEP’s recommendations was the development of the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal that generated intense media interest and produced widespread opposition from environmentalists.  Equally significant, however, was its call for increased exploration and drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf, as well as the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off northern Alaska.

While drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was, in the end, blocked by Congress, an oil rush to exploit the other areas proceeded with little governmental opposition.  In fact, as has now become evident, the government’s deeply corrupted regulatory arm, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), has for years facilitated the awarding of leases for exploration and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico while systematically ignoring environmental regulations and concerns.  Common practice during the Bush years, this was not altered when Barack Obama took over the presidency.  Indeed, he gave his own stamp of approval to a potentially massive increase in offshore drilling when on March 30th -- three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon disaster -- he announced that vast areas of the Atlantic, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and Alaskan waters would be opened to oil and gas drilling for the first time.

In addition to accelerating the development of the Gulf of Mexico, while overruling government scientists and other officials who warned of the dangers, the MMS also approved offshore drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  This happened despite strong opposition from environmentalists and native peoples who fear a risk to whales and other endangered species crucial to their way of life.  In October, for example, the MMS gave Shell Oil preliminary approval to conduct exploratory drilling on two offshore blocks in the Beaufort Sea.  Opponents of the plan have warned that any oil spills produced by such activities would pose a severe threat to endangered animals, but these concerns were, as usual, ignored.  (On April 30th, 10 days after the Gulf explosion, final approval of the plan was suddenly ordered withheld by President Obama, pending a review of offshore drilling activities.)

A BP Hall of Shame

The major energy firms have their own compelling reasons for a growing involvement in the exploitation of extreme energy options.  Each year, to prevent the value of their shares from falling, these companies must replace the oil extracted from their existing reservoirs with new reserves.  Most of the oil and gas basins in their traditional areas of supply have, however, been depleted, while many promising fields in the Middle East, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union are now under the exclusive control of state-owned national oil companies like Saudi Aramco, Mexico’s Pemex, and Venezuela’s PdVSA.

This leaves the private firms, widely known as international oil companies (IOCs), with ever fewer areas in which to replenish their supplies.  They are now deeply involved in an ongoing oil rush in sub-Saharan Africa, where most countries still allow some participation by IOCs, but there they face dauntingly stiff competition from Chinese companies and other state-backed companies.  The only areas where they still have a virtually free hand are the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic, and the North Sea.  Not surprisingly, this is where they are concentrating their efforts, whatever the dangers to us or to the planet.

Take BP.  Originally known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, still later British Petroleum), BP got its start in southwestern Iran, where it once enjoyed a monopoly on the production of crude petroleum.  In 1951, its Iranian holdings were nationalized by the democratic government of Mohammed Mossadeq.  The company returned to Iran in 1953, following a U.S.-backed coup that put the Shah in power, and was finally expelled again in 1979 following the Islamic Revolution.  The company still retains a significant foothold in oil-rich but unstable Nigeria, a former British colony, and in Azerbaijan.  However, since its takeover of Amoco (once the Standard Oil Company of Indiana) in 1998, BP has concentrated its energies on the exploitation of Alaskan reserves and tough-oil locations in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and off the African coast.

"Operating at the Energy Frontiers" is the title of BP’s Annual Review for 2009, which proudly began: "BP operates at the frontiers of the energy industry.  From deep beneath the ocean to complex refining environments, from remote tropical islands to next-generation biofuels -- a revitalized BP is driving greater efficiency, sustained momentum and business growth."

Within this mandate, moreover, the Gulf of Mexico held center stage.  "BP is the leading operator in the Gulf of Mexico," the review asserted.  "We are the biggest producer, the leading resource holder and have the largest exploration acreage position… With new discoveries, successful start-ups, efficient operations, and a strong portfolio of new projects, we are exceptionally well placed to sustain our success in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico over the long run."

Clearly, BP’s top executives believed that a rapid ramp-up in production in the Gulf was essential to the company’s long-term financial health (and indeed, only days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the company announced that it had made $6.1 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2010 alone).  To what degree BP’s corporate culture contributed to the Deepwater Horizon accident has yet to be determined.  There is, however, some indication that the company was in an unseemly rush to complete the cementing of the Mississippi Canyon 252 well -- a procedure that would cap it until the company was ready to undertake commercial extraction of the oil stored below.  It could then have moved the rig, rented from Transocean Ltd. at $500,000 per day, to another prospective drill site in search of yet more oil.

While BP may prove to be the principal villain in this case, other large energy firms -- egged on by the government and state officials -- are engaged in similar reckless drives to extract oil and natural gas from extreme environmental locations.  These companies and their government backers insist that, with proper precautions, it is safe to operate in these conditions, but the Deepwater Horizon incident shows that the more extreme the environment, the more unlikely such statements will prove accurate.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion, we assuredly will be told, was an unfortunate fluke: a confluence of improper management and faulty equipment.  With tightened oversight, it will be said, such accidents can be averted -- and so it will be safe to go back into the deep waters again and drill for oil a mile or more beneath the ocean’s surface.

Don’t believe it.  While poor oversight and faulty equipment may have played a critical role in BP’s catastrophe in the Gulf, the ultimate source of the disaster is big oil’s compulsive drive to compensate for the decline in its conventional oil reserves by seeking supplies in inherently hazardous areas -- risks be damned.

So long as this compulsion prevails, more such disasters will follow.  Bet on it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Maine Tea Party: Worse than you think

State GOP apologizes after conventioneers vandalize an eighth grade classroom

By Joan Walsh

Tea Party defenders like to accuse Tea Party critics of focusing on a tiny minority of racist, crazy or potentially violent freaks, and ignoring the vast majority of sensible, respectful law abiding folk who just support smaller government. Why, just the other day, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal pointed to the Tea Party group that played by the rules and took over the Maine GOP's convention, to push lovely and constructive Tea Party ideas into the party's platform, as an example of the productive role the movement plays.

Of course, a day later I wrote about how many crackpot ideas they got into Maine's constitution. But hey, one person's crackpot ideas are another person's political brilliance. I get that.

Is vandalism likewise in the eye of the beholder? I'm not so sure.

Thanks to Think Progress, I learned Friday that their ideas weren't all that was crazy about the Maine Tea Partiers. The state GOP just apologized to Portland's King Middle School, because conventioneers – who gathered at the Expo, but used the middle school for caucusing – unbelievably, vandalized an eighth-grade classroom. Relying on reports in the Portland Press Herald, Think Progress describes what the Tea Party caucusers did to eighth-grade teacher Paul Clifford's class:

– For seven years, Clifford has had “a collage-type poster depicting the history of the U.S. labor movement” on his classroom door. He uses it “to teach his students how to incorporate collages into their annual project on Norman Rockwell’s historic ‘Four Freedoms’ illustrations.” When Clifford returned to his classroom on Monday, after the GOP caucuses, the poster was gone; in its place was a sticker reading, “Working People Vote Republican.”
– Republicans opened a “closed cardboard box they found near Clifford’s desk” and later objected to the fact that it contained copies of the U.S. Constitution donated to the school by the American Civil Liberties Union.´
– After the caucuses, “rank-and-file Republicans who were upset by what they said they had seen in Clifford’s classroom” began calling the school, objecting to student art they had seen and a sticker on a filing cabinet reading “People for the American Way — Fight the Right.”
When Clifford got to work and saw the poster had been replaced by the "Working People Vote Republican" sticker, at first he laughed, he told the Portland Press Herald, thinking, "'All right, that's funny, But then I go inside my room thinking the poster will be on my desk – and it isn't. And so now I'm like, 'You know what? This is baloney!"'

Clifford started trying to get his poster back, but meanwhile, Tea Partiers were calling the school to protest what they found in Clifford's classroom. Never mind that Norman Rockwell was once synonymous with mainstream American values. Never mind that the "Four Freedoms," as articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union speech (as what became known as World War II raged on) are enshrined on a cherished monument in Washington D.C.

Here's what Roosevelt actually said in his famous speech:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want--which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants--everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
Sadly, you can see what the Tea Partiers, and too many Republicans, would find objectionable: Freedom from want and freedom from fear. Because most of them believe in want and fear, as necessary to animate the corporate national security regime. (Sadly, too many Democrats seem to support that too.) And of course, the Republican right objects to the "freedom of every person to worship God in his own way," so a whole lot of the GOP is against three out of four freedoms. So much for the party of freedom and liberty. True patriots would likely rise up against the state propagation of want and fear, but that's really not what the Tea Party is about.

Whatever. It's not my cup of tea. This is America, they're entitled to their beliefs.

What I can't see is how anyone would defend trashing a public school classroom to symbolize their objections to whatever they believed was going on there. And yet the Press Herald received email from Tea Party activists defending what happened (even as the Maine GOP, to its credit, apologized to the students and teachers of King Middle School.)

Clifford's students quickly responded. Simon Johnson, a graduate of Clifford’s eighth-grade class blogged:

I am an unapologetic graduate of Paul Clifford’s eighth grade English class at King Middle School. I participated in the “Four Freedoms” expedition, and I made a poster decrying war quite similar to the one with which the Republicans took issue.
I am not brainwashed, I am not a puppet, I am not anti-American or anti-religious, and I am certainly not stupid. Paul Clifford’s class taught me to think critically, to deductively reason and, if anything, to appreciate America for all the freedoms with which I am ensured on a daily basis.
Clearly, the Knox County Republicans — who took a cherished, pro-Labor poster from Clifford’s room and who now are making slanderous and uninformed claims about Clifford — have a different agenda.
Eighth-grader Lilly O'Leary emailed the Press-Herald: "I am not being brainwashed...I am being told that I have the right to my own opinion." She added, "These people were adults and they were acting very immaturely."

But hey, the Tea Partiers are the best of American values and the future of the Republican Party, Lilly! James Taranto of Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal vouches for them. Get with the program!

Lilly O'Leary and Simon Johnson are patriots. The Tea Party cowards who vandalized an eighth-grade classroom are not.

Friday, May 14, 2010

U.S. Said to Allow Drilling Without Needed Permits

The New York Times
May 13, 2010

WASHINGTON — The federal Minerals Management Service gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species — and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf.

Those approvals, federal records show, include one for the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and resulting in thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the gulf each day.

The Minerals Management Service, or M.M.S., also routinely overruled its staff biologists and engineers who raised concerns about the safety and the environmental impact of certain drilling proposals in the gulf and in Alaska, according to a half-dozen current and former agency scientists.

Those scientists said they were also regularly pressured by agency officials to change the findings of their internal studies if they predicted that an accident was likely to occur or if wildlife might be harmed.
Under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Minerals Management Service is required to get permits to allow drilling where it might harm endangered species or marine mammals.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is partly responsible for protecting endangered species and marine mammals. It has said on repeated occasions that drilling in the gulf affects these animals, but the minerals agency since January 2009 has approved at least three huge lease sales, 103 seismic blasting projects and 346 drilling plans. Agency records also show that permission for those projects and plans was granted without getting the permits required under federal law.

“M.M.S. has given up any pretense of regulating the offshore oil industry,” said Kierán Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group in Tucson, which filed notice of intent to sue the agency over its noncompliance with federal law concerning endangered species. “The agency seems to think its mission is to help the oil industry evade environmental laws.”

Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Minerals Management Service, said her agency had full consultations with NOAA about endangered species in the gulf. But she declined to respond to additional questions about whether her agency had obtained the relevant permits.

Federal records indicate that these consultations ended with NOAA instructing the minerals agency that continued drilling in the gulf was harming endangered marine mammals and that the agency needed to get permits to be in compliance with federal law.

Responding to the accusations that agency scientists were being silenced, Ms. Barkoff added, “Under the previous administration, there was a pattern of suppressing science in decisions, and we are working very hard to change the culture and empower scientists in the Department of the Interior.”

On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to reorganize the minerals agency to improve its regulatory role by separating safety oversight from the division that collects royalties from oil and gas companies. But that reorganization is not likely to have any bearing on how and whether the agency seeks required permits from other agencies like NOAA.

Criticism of the minerals agency has grown in recent days as more information has emerged about how it handled drilling in the gulf.

In a letter from September 2009, obtained by The New York Times, NOAA accused the minerals agency of a pattern of understating the likelihood and potential consequences of a major spill in the gulf and understating the frequency of spills that have already occurred there.

The letter accuses the agency of highlighting the safety of offshore oil drilling operations while overlooking more recent evidence to the contrary. The data used by the agency to justify its approval of drilling operations in the gulf play down the fact that spills have been increasing and understate the “risks and impacts of accidental spills,” the letter states. NOAA declined several requests for comment.

The accusation that the minerals agency has ignored risks is also being levied by scientists working for the agency.

Managers at the agency have routinely overruled staff scientists whose findings highlight the environmental risks of drilling, according to a half-dozen current or former agency scientists.

The scientists, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals by the agency or by those in the industry, said they had repeatedly had their scientific findings changed to indicate no environmental impact or had their calculations of spill risks downgraded.

“You simply are not allowed to conclude that the drilling will have an impact,” said one scientist who has worked for the minerals agency for more than a decade. “If you find the risks of a spill are high or you conclude that a certain species will be affected, your report gets disappeared in a desk drawer and they find another scientist to redo it or they rewrite it for you.”

Another biologist who left the agency in 2005 after more than five years said that agency officials went out of their way to accommodate the oil and gas industry.

He said, for example, that seismic activity from drilling can have a devastating effect on mammals and fish, but that agency officials rarely enforced the regulations meant to limit those effects.

He also said the agency routinely ceded to the drilling companies the responsibility for monitoring species that live or spawn near the drilling projects.

“What I observed was M.M.S. was trying to undermine the monitoring and mitigation requirements that would be imposed on the industry,” he said.

Aside from allowing BP and other companies to drill in the gulf without getting the required permits from NOAA, the minerals agency has also given BP and other drilling companies in the gulf blanket exemptions from having to provide environmental impact statements.

Much as BP’s drilling plan asserted that there was no chance of an oil spill, the company also claimed in federal documents that its drilling would not have any adverse effect on endangered species.

The gulf is known for its biodiversity. Various endangered species are found in the area where the Deepwater Horizon was drilling, including sperm whales, blue whales and fin whales.

In some instances, the minerals agency has indeed sought and received permits in the gulf to harm certain endangered species like green and loggerhead sea turtles. But the agency has not received these permits for endangered species like the sperm and humpback whales, which are more common in the areas where drilling occurs and thus are more likely to be affected.

Tensions between scientists and managers at the agency erupted in one case last year involving a rig in the gulf called the BP Atlantis. An agency scientist complained to his bosses of catastrophic safety and environmental violations. The scientist said these complaints were ignored, so he took his concerns to higher officials at the Interior Department.

“The purpose of this letter is to restate in writing our concern that the BP Atlantis project presently poses a threat of serious, immediate, potentially irreparable and catastrophic harm to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and its marine environment, and to summarize how BP’s conduct has violated federal law and regulations,” Kenneth Abbott, the agency scientist, wrote in a letter to officials at the Interior Department that was dated May 27.

The letter added: “From our conversation on the phone, we understand that M.M.S. is already aware that undersea manifolds have been leaking and that major flow lines must already be replaced. Failure of this critical undersea equipment has potentially catastrophic environmental consequences.”

Almost two months before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, sent a letter to the agency raising concerns about the BP Atlantis and questioning its oversight of the rig.

After the disaster, Mr. Salazar said he would delay granting any new oil drilling permits.

But the minerals agency has issued at least five final approval permits to new drilling projects in the gulf since last week, records show.

Despite being shown records indicating otherwise, Ms. Barkoff said her agency had granted no new permits since Mr. Salazar made his announcement.

Other agencies besides NOAA have begun criticizing the minerals agency.

At a public hearing in Louisiana this week, a joint panel of Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service officials investigating the explosion grilled minerals agency officials for allowing the offshore drilling industry to be essentially “self-certified,” as Capt. Hung Nguyen of the Coast Guard, a co-chairman of the investigation, put it.

In addition to the minerals agency and the Coast Guard, the Deepwater Horizon was overseen by the Marshall Islands, the “flag of convenience” under which it was registered.

No one from the Marshall Islands ever inspected the rig. The nongovernmental organizations that did were paid by the rig’s operator, in this case Transocean.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Suicide By Regressivism

By David Michael Green

Sometimes bad things happen to countries, and people suffer.

Other times, people suffer because countries are stupid and bring bad things upon themselves.

No country in the history of the world has ever been as rich and powerful as the United States. Regrettably, few have demonstrated the level of stupidity we have and brought so much grief upon our own heads (not to mention treating so many other people in the world to an even worse fate).

To watch the Wall Street hearings in Congress this week is to witness this folly in full flower. To ask, "What two greater sets of organized criminals are there in America than Wall Street bankers and the United States Congress?" is actually to make the fundamental mistake of being too charitable. The question assumes that they are indeed distinguishable entities, when in fact this is arguably nonsense.

That distinction is actually quite critical, for our public sector has in many ways more or less ceased to exist in this country. And that in turn is critical for what it signifies, in addition to the very tangible effects felt every day.

What's at stake in the significance of a robust public sector, with supreme political authority, is nothing less than democracy at its most profound level. We tend to think of democracy primarily in terms of elections. Those of us who scratch the surface a little deeper might invoke associations to the concept of responsible government, and the notion of clearly assignable credit for policy successes and failures, along with the idea of legitimate voter choice which follows from that.

But foundational to both those important concepts is the assigned role for the government being chosen through this electoral process. It doesn't much matter if you have free and fair elections, with lots of distinct party choices to pick from, if the government you are electing is substantially limited in its capacities. You might as well get all excited about the Queen of England. You can do that if you want, but the reality is that she doesn't have any real political power anymore, so why bother?

Likewise, the stature of American government has much deteriorated in many key respects from where it stood a generation ago. Regressives have been so good at winning the ideological warfare of the last thirty years, whether on fronts overt or subtle, and this is just another example of the latter. By weakening the government, by undermining its status in the public mind, and by making it subservient to other actors on the political stage, incalculable damage has been done to American society. Just exactly as was intended.

One of the great regressive triumphs of our time has been to turn people against their own government. It's an astonishing victory - especially in a democracy where those same people have chosen that very government - and it comes against the long odds cast by the shadow of rationality.

But it has been a necessary ingredient for a plutocracy which has sought to achieve - and has achieved - the fundamental goal of radically redistributing wealth in America. The major impediments to such predation include government's presumptive power to tax, to regulate, to provide services, and to set the fundamental rules for the structural mechanics of economic life in a society. All of these had to be challenged to insure that a wealthy overclass could become fantastically more wealthy, and the easiest way to do that was to corrode the status and power of government itself. To choose a metaphor which is not entirely metaphorical, it's a lot harder to steal from you if you think you deserve to own what you have. If, on the other hand, you can be sold a diet of some lovely self-loathing, you're likely to be a lot more inclined to acquiesce in your own fleecing.

Teaching people to hate their own government is one way to divest them of it, and it has been crucial. At least as important, however, has been the process of wresting the beast right out of the hands of any remaining semblance of public control. So, first the Republican Party was completely coopted, then - courtesy of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama especially - the Democrats as well. Now both parties take enormous sums from Wall Street and any other corporate actor who realizes what a great return on investment is provided on the minimal pay-to-play entry fee of buying off a few members of Congress, through the medium of former members of Congress now cashing in as lobbyists. If this goes on much longer it will make the robber baron era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century look as garish as Gandhi by comparison.

While taxes on the wealthy have been dramatically cut in the United States these last decades (with, of course, debt rising in equally fantastic proportion) the very notion of the legitimacy of taxation has been called into question to a ludicrous extent. It's as easy as it is immature to bitch about taxes, in the same way that a certain five year-old might decide that he should have all the cookies on the communal plate, and his playmates none. Some folks on the right may have some legitimate policy disputes about being forced through taxation to pay for programs they don't like (though I suspect nearly all of them are just looking to have more cookies). But, hey, guess what? Most everyone can readily find lots of stuff in the federal budget they'd rather not fund. As for me, I am appalled that something like one-half of the federal dollars skimmed off of my paycheck go to fund a massively bloated military-industrial-complex, for a country with no real enemy, in a process that represents little more than corporate welfare at its absolute worst. But I don't complain about the concept of taxes. It is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out, the price we pay for civilization. Sadly, in America, we pay comparatively little in taxes. If you do the math on that, per Holmes' formulation, you quickly realize that we have purchased for ourselves a Walmart civilization, and not just figuratively, either.

Deregulatory fervor is another concept which fairly boggles the mind. Does it seem to you that Wall Street has been prevented by the government from being the best it can be lately? Were those poor hard-working bankers unable to earn an honest day's salary, even after we dismantled the regulatory framework we built after the 1930s, the last time this same nightmare went down? Do you think that American industry should be freer to pollute our waters, strip-mine our mountains, or build even bigger shit pools surrounding industrial-scale meat factories? Aren't zoning restrictions just an outrage, too? Why shouldn't that sulfur-processing plant be located right in your neighborhood? Why should the next generations get to enjoy the same temperate planet we all have grown up with, when that would mean profits for an already wealthy tiny minority might be slightly diminished? What's so bad about the Sahara, anyhow?

Then there's spending. Of all the developed countries in the world, the United States has always been the most absolutely miserly in taking care of its populace. Americans would be entirely amazed to learn what goes on in places like Germany or Sweden, how socially and personally beneficial such welfare state programs are, and how much security and, yes, freedom, comes from such initiatives. They might even realize what a raw deal they've given themselves, in exchange for the right to buy a bigger TV on their high-interest credit cards. But, of course, the only times in half a century that we've moved in the direction of enlarging the American welfare state - Bush's prescription drug bill and Obama's health care debacle - it's really been a lot more about enlarging corporate profits. Coupled with the Clinton/Gingrich meat cleaver approach to already minimal welfare assistance, it's a very sad record indeed. But, then, it's only lives that are at stake here.

While taxes and regulation and spending are the obvious manifestations of this public-versus-private dynamic, there is another more profound one as well, which has to do with the very structuring of society. We seem to have forgotten, all too often, that the former is meant to sanction the latter, and not the other way around. Corporations are, at least in theory, chartered by the state, for purposes of serving some sort of public good, and not otherwise. In practice, however, corporations have come to view the state as their sometime nemesis and oft-time resource collector. Regressives, however, in their supposed zeal for 'freedom', never stop reminding us of the need to leave the private sector unfettered to do what it wants. Funny, they don't seem so obsessed with freedom from state power when it comes to murder or robbery, or even abortion or gay marriage. What could be the rationale for letting corporate actors murder - and in some cases there is no other word for it - as a result of actions taken in a society free from government control? And, worst of all, for the lowest of reasons imaginable?: To generate big profits for little people.

At the root of all this is a society that has lost touch with the very meaning of the public sector. At the end of the day, and despite all the deviations of real-world practice, government is the forum in which the aspirations and interests of the people, as a people, are expressed. And that is why, despite the need to protect some substantial quantities of individual and even corporate freedoms, government must ultimately trump the power of private actors. We don't allow individuals the right to take the lives of others whenever they feel like it on the basis of their claims to freedom. Why do we contemplate extending these and analogous rights to corporate actors? Yes, of course, everyone should have maximal possible freedoms, but only after the needs of society and other individuals have been placed first.

At its core, the regressive project these last thirty years has sought to undermine that principle, rhetorically, legislatively and conceptually. Ronald Reagan was the embodiment of this initiative, and nothing spelled it out more clearly than his line that "Government is not the solution, government is the problem". What he was really saying was, "Greedy wealthy folks are not getting enough yet, so the rest of you need to have less and live shorter, shittier lives to rectify that unacceptable imbalance".

And so, precisely, it has been. The Great Recession of our time is only the most obvious manifestation of a thirty year process of wealth transfer from bottom to top. Even as the global economy crumbles and America groans under the burden of record-high unemployment rates, all remains quite lovely, thank you very much, for the nice folks in America's economic stratosphere. Record high bonuses on Wall Street and a rising Dow. Meanwhile, the distribution of wealth in this country is now as it was in Herbert Hoover's day, a scenario of which any banana republic could be proud.

And the notion of what to do about it is more farcical than ever. The only serious political energy in the country belongs to the tea party morons, and their media cheerleaders on Fox and, well, seemingly everywhere. And they are calling - wait for it now - for less government as a solution to the country's problems. It boggles the mind. Could an ideology ever have been more obviously shown to be catastrophic in its effects? And yet here we are arguing in public about doubling down on those policy ideas, while the two major political parties both pretend to be limiting the worst practices of the most predatory actors, as they simultaneously accept bags of money from the very same folks at the very same time.

I'm sorry, but this is embarrassing. I know enough about history that I don't entirely mind if my country has a bad century or two, or falls from the lofty heights of its great power status. Falling is what you're supposed to do when you're a great power and you've already done the whole rise thing. It's called gravity, and it's pretty inevitable.

But do we have to do it to ourselves?

And does it have to be the product of such rampant stupidity?
About author

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website,