Obama shares blame for failing to prevent Gulf of Mexico oil spill
There’s been a long-standing contest to see which crisis would become “Obama’s Katrina.” The sinking last week of the Deepwater Horizon, the Gulf of Mexico-based offshore oil drilling platform, may be the best candidate thus far.
Not only did 11 workers die as a in the explosion that destroyed the rig, but about 5,000 gallons of crude a day are leaking out of the well when we received assurances last week from the Coast Guard that there was no sign of an oil spill. And this comes on the heels of Obama’s much-ballyhooed triangulation around offshore drilling as a key component of his energy policy. The website ‘Better Shirts’ has created a ‘Spill Baby Spill‘ t-shirt, and Cabinet members like Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have been dispatched to the scene to make sure that resources are properly utilized to prevent the crisis form getting any worse than it already has. Let’s just hope she isn’t asking her aides in any e-mails which pantsuit she should wear on TV.
The White House announced today that there would be a freeze on new offshore drilling until investigators figured out what happened to the TransOcean/BP rig that’s causing all the trouble. This is a pretty empty gesture when you consider that a lot of the major new drilling plans weren’t set to come on line for years. And while parsing the political ramifications and who gets the blame, it’s worth looking at what the Obama administration’s policy has been on safety regulations concerning offshore oil drilling. An examination of some budget documents released earlier this year suggests that the Team Obama’s head has been in the wrong place where safety in offshore oil drilling is concerned give its importance to his energy policy.
The agency charged with enforcing safety regulations on offshore oil rigs is the Minerals Management Service, nestled within the Department of Interior. The MMS, you might recall, was implicated in a doozy of a scandal toward the end of the Bush administration. The part of the agency that was supposed to be ensuring the federal government collected royalties owed to the American people by companies drilling on federal lands had been completely bought off by the very corporations they were regulating. Justin Rood, then at Talking Points Memo, memorably named the scandal ‘sex-for-oil‘ because of findings of ‘improper social ties’ between MMS staff and oil and gas industry executives (oh yeah, they also called it ‘Lubrigate‘). And that was just the salacious part of the scandal – the financial loss to the American public as a consequence of the cozy relationship between MMS regulators and the companies they were collecting from remains difficult to calculate.
Since the Obama administration has come into office, it has taken a path with MMS that would not suggest that safety was its primary concerns where offshore drilling was concerned.
For instance, the budget for safety remained relatively flat, growing by about $3 million from FY2009 to FY2010, the transition from the Bush to the Obama administration, and then seeing an the budget rise about $119,000 more for this coming year.
At the same time, MMS established some new principles for safety inspection concerned more with risk assessment than covering every facility. The most recent budget request from the Department of Interior states outright that “MMS focuses compliance efforts on those operators whose performance does not meet certain targets.” What this means is that they are focused on the facilities with the greatest risk. And to that end, MMS explained in its budget request that while it completed around 27,000 inspections in FY2009 (the last year of the Bush administration), it anticipated completing fewer inspections in both ‘10 and ‘11 – 22,000 and 23,000 respectively. And for that reason, it’s possible that TransOcean’s Deepwater Horizon may not have been on its radar screen.
For instance, according to TransOcean’s own internal magazine, Deepwater Horizon in the spring of 2009 reached its sixth year without a major safety problem or a ‘lost time incident.’ Which may mean that the TransOcean rig was not subject to the kind of scrutiny that other more troubled platforms received from MMS inspectors. It certainly didn’t sound like it was considered a ‘high-risk’ rig by anyone in the industry.
Meanwhile, paired with MMS’s new slimmed down approach to inspections was a brand new set of responsibilities for the agency – renewable energy development under the Obama administration’s commitment of to developing green energy. While modest resources were devoted to renewable energy before Obama came in, the President’s new people at MMS got $21 million for programs (with a small bump this year) that would “enable MMS to further identify and address any major challenges to issuing commercial leases for generation of renewable energy by increasing its visibility and accessibility to major stakeholders.” Basically, an agency focused on fossil fuel resources – you know, “minerals” – is now spending tens of millions of dollars to get into things like tidal or wind energy – sort of like the turbines approved to be built off Cape Cod earlier in the week.
This is a classic example of bureaucratic ‘mission creep’ where a new responsbility (and a bigger budget) is sought out by a government entity, while core responsibilities wither on the vine because they aren’t the hot new thing. An agency which may not have been doing a stupendous job in its main areas of concern decides to focus its attention on something cool and new, like green energy.
While I’m suggesting that the offshore drilling safety wasn’t a principal concern of anyone in the administration, it will be easy for others to blame ‘Big Oil’ for the disaster. Marcus Baram at the Huffington Post did some deep digging into federal records and found that companies like BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon from TransOcean, fought some proposed safety rules last year. But that doesn’t come as much of a surprise – opposing regulations is what American corporations do. And it’s also not hard to imagine a good reason companies like BP would have for opposing new regulations: a lack of regulators to enforce them. But hey, if BP is looking for a tidal energy lease…
Bottom line, letting MMS take its eye off the ball on offshore rig safety isn’t quite as dramatic as flying to Arizona to give John McCain a birthday cake on an airport tarmac while Katrina made its landfall. But obviously if you’re going to make offshore drilling an important part of your energy policy, you have to do it safely. Rather than putting a moratorium on drilling that isn’t happening, MMS needs a bigger budget for inspections that focus on all oil rigs, not just the creakiest ones. It’s not enough to just temporarily freeze drilling that’s years away. You have to spend more money so that when it begins – and we will be all ‘drill baby drill’ in several years time, you can bet on it – another disaster doesn’t occur.