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Apr. 30 2010 - 1:54 pm | 1,222 views | 1 recommendation | 11 comments

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.

The Coast Guard tries to fight the fire on the TransOcean Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform before it sank last week (Coast Guard via Getty)

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.

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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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Your right Michael, when this happened, and it should not have, I thought about the coal mines again.

  2. collapse expand

    Interesting insight. This definitely highlights the MMS and their role.

  3. collapse expand

    Why journalists find themselves fascinated with the political aspects of this story is completely lost on me. There is no political comparison of this story to Katrina nor is there a comparison to Bush in the president’s ability to respond to a disaster.

    Let’s not get out fruit mixed up in an eagerness to throw tomatoes at the White House.

    First off Katrina was in the wind whirling around the Atlantic for weeks with government experts predicting its power and danger.

    Secondly the impact of a hurricane on New Orleans has been written up in engineering journals for twenty years. No one knew in advance an oil rig would blow up and sink and break a shut off valve one mile below the surface.

    Third, unlike hurricanes that happen every year with the predictability of the seasons changing, there has been only two major oil rig accidents since 1979 that resulted in pipeline leaks anywhere close to this event.

    Unlike Katrina, this was not a flood drowning a city, something that one can easily grasp the scope, this is disaster happening a mile down, might as well been in outer space in trying to assess the damage.

    In addition it was the Obama administration that put the science community to work in accurately assessing the damage using satellites, contradicting BP’s assessment and then putting the full weigh of the government’s assets to work, including military.

    Journalist want to point to lax inspections. Yet BP leased rigs have been fined and inspected on a regular basis. Just as coal mines are fined and inspected. The problem with these companies and government inspections is systematic, ripe with campaign donations and a belief that self regulation works best. This is a theory that took thirty years to implement and is part of the oil industry, the coal industry and for that matter the financial industry.

    The interior department is a mess and has been since President Grant. While it is true that Salazar is trying to steer towards more green energy, the idea that coal mine inspectors or oil rig inspectors are being pulled off the line to go out in the desert with wet fingers to find new spots for wind turbines is flat out silly. There is no evidence of “slimmed down” inspections and as of this writing no one knows what caused the blast so pinning the blame on a safety violation is not fact based. What is fact is that the Obama administration was working on a new set of safety rules on oil rigs because there was a large spike in accidents between 2001-2008 that were not covered by existing rules.

    http://www.buffalonews.com/2010/04/23/1028707/oil-rig-blast-prompts-environmental.html

    Now while suspending off shore leases may be a hollow gesture, not suspending them would be stupid. Suspension offers the opportunity for the government to ask the industry two big questions: One can you prove deep water drilling is safe and two, can you insure the government against paying for a clean up?

    Obama’s Katrina? Not even close however if one wants to make comparisons let’s say it is closer to Obama’s Three Mile Island.

    This is a story with multiple angles from human to engineering and the least interesting aspect is making political points from a disaster.

  4. collapse expand

    Let’s not get out fruit mixed up in an eagerness to throw tomatoes at the White House.

    Why journalists find themselves fascinated with the political aspects of this story is completely lost on me. There is no political comparison of this story to Katrina nor is there a comparison to Bush in the president’s ability to respond to a disaster.

    First off Katrina was in the wind whirling around the Atlantic for weeks with government experts predicting its power and danger.

    Secondly the impact of a hurricane on New Orleans has been written up in engineering journals for twenty years. No one knew in advance an oil rig would blow up and sink and break a shut off valve one mile below the surface.

    Third, unlike hurricanes that happen every year with the predictability of the seasons changing, there has been only two major oil rig accidents since 1979 that resulted in pipeline leaks anywhere close to this event.

    Unlike Katrina, this was not a flood drowning a city, something that one can easily grasp the scope, this is disaster happening a mile down, might as well been in outer space in trying to assess the damage.

    In addition it was the Obama administration that put the science community to work in accurately assessing the damage using satellites, contradicting BP’s assessment and then putting the full weigh of the government’s assets to work, including military.

    Journalist want to point to lax inspections. Yet BP leased rigs have been fined and inspected on a regular basis. Just as coal mines are fined and inspected. The problem with these companies and government inspections is systematic, ripe with campaign donations and a belief that self regulation works best. This is a theory that took thirty years to implement and is part of the oil industry, the coal industry and for that matter the financial industry.

    The interior department is a mess and has been since President Grant. While it is true that Salazar is trying to steer towards more green energy, the idea that coal mine inspectors or oil rig inspectors are being pulled off the line to go out in the desert with wet fingers to find new spots for wind turbines is flat out silly. There is no evidence of “slimmed down” inspections and as of this writing no one knows what caused the blast so pinning the blame on a safety violation is not fact based. What is fact is that the Obama administration was working on a new set of safety rules on oil rigs because there was a large spike in accidents between 2001-2008 that were not covered by existing rules.

    http://www.buffalonews.com/2010/04/23/1028707/oil-rig-blast-prompts-environmental.html

    Now while suspending off shore leases may be a hollow gesture, not suspending them would be stupid. Suspension offers the opportunity for the government to ask the industry two big questions: One can you prove deep water drilling is safe and two, can you insure the government against paying for a clean up?

    Obama’s Katrina? Not even close however if one wants to make comparisons let’s say it is closer to Obama’s Three Mile Island.

    This is a story with multiple angles from human to engineering and the least interesting aspect is making political points from a disaster.

  5. collapse expand

    Libtree, I’m still interested in learning more about why the Coast Guard concluded last week that there was no sign of a spill. That could make the case of how Katrina-ish this incident is blow up in some big ways.

    Also, I offered evidence of ’slimmed down inspections’ – MMS’s own reporting indicates that it cut back the number of inspections (while spending more per inspection, a detail I left out) in order to focus on ‘high risk’ sites.

    And I never said that oil drilling inspectors (not coal – MMS doesn’t inspect coal mines) were involved in offshore renewable energy leasing. I said that the bureaucratic focus of the agency was turning toward green energy given that they created a new line item in the agency’s budget, and appointed a new deputy director specifically to work on that aspect of the agency’s new agenda. All you have to do is look at MMS’s homepage right now, where the Cape Wind project get the headline treatment, and Deepwater Horizon is the off-lead.

    (Although to be fair, once a disaster happens, it’s not MMS’s job to fix it – it’s just their job to keep the accidents from happening in the first place.)

    Meanwhile, there’s no sign that MMS itself and all of its pre-existing problems were overhauled – just that it was given new responsibilities by the Obama administration. I guess an argument could be made that MMS’s experience with collecting royalties mean that it’s the logical entity to manage leasing of federal territory for renewable energy projects. But an argument can also be made that when an agency is so damaged, giving it a new job only distracts it from fixing its existing problems.

    Finally, I have no interest in scoring political points. I have an interest in pointing out that the Obama administration sought to triangulate its political opposition around offshore drilling, but has not simultaneously increased resources to safety issues where offshore drilling is concerned. Clearly many federal agencies were damaged by 8 years of the Bush administration flawed policies that were overly friendly to industry, and the MMS with its ’sex for oil’ scandal was a great example. But it isn’t clear to me that Obama’s people tried to fix the damage in any measurable way where MMS was concerned.

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