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May. 3 2010 - 3:55 pm | 629 views | 0 recommendations | 14 comments

The Gulf Coast oil spill and America’s anti-regulatory culture

During the first few days of the spill, heavy ...

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I couldn’t but shake my head as I listened to the latest reports about the magnitude of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast on my way into work this morning (on foot!). Speculation about the outcome of the spill, which is on track to surpass the well-known Exxon Valdez spill and possible become the worst spill in American history, ranges in its dire predictions from really, really bad to devastating.

On ABC’s This Week, after some discussion about whether the Gulf spill is Obama’s Katrina and whether he should own the issues (Al Sharpton and George Will: no, Bill Maher: yes) and a comment by Matthew Dowd about how this is another demonstration of government failure, Katrina Vanden Heuvel made an important point,

I think what we’ve seen is that the risks are too great. Offshore drilling is the problem no the solution. This is not  Katrina — 1,500 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. I think more important is to understand that we now need a government that is going to regulate a company, BP, which was a serial abuser of workers and of safety regulations. Just like Massey, we need regulations, tough enforcement. We need a government that understands that.

It will come as no surprise that I agree with Vanden Heuvel on that point and I think that is, perhaps, a touch more subtle than it appears at first glance. Vanden Heuvel isn’t just arguing that tougher regulations are needed, though they are.

What Vanden Heuvel’s argument also contains is the implicit acknowledgment that for the past few decades, the United States has consistently been governed by administrations — be they Republican or Democrat — that have a built in distrust of and antipathy towards regulation.

Indeed, whether one looks at Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, or Bush 43, there has been a distinct and predominate  ideological bent that eschewed regulatory actions and fundamentally shaped the contours of the debate on public policy. And lying within the various crises that have plagued the country in recent years is a core insight: those chickens have come home to roost and this way of doing things does not work.

One begins to wonder how much of a rebuke the Amiercan public needs before something substantial gets done to curb these continuing crises. What is it going to take to shake people up and get them out of their seats?

The answer, of course, is: a lot. And there is good reason why this is the case.

At the center of each of the recent crisis to rock the United States of America, there are specific players. And those players have been pushing for specific things: most commonly, to convince government that it ought not to play a significant role in setting the guidelines for how they do business.

Free speech advocates often suggest that this kind of lobbying and influence peddling is nothing more than Washington’s own market place of ideas. It is often suggested that industry players need a place at the table because they know the business in which they are engaged, they offer important insights, they come equipped with key experience and sharpened arguments about what is to be done.

The other thing industry players come equipped with is money. A lot of money. And money, as they say, talks.

If we look at recent issues facing the country, The Center for Responsive Politics reveals that those who have benefited most and inflicted the most harm have been among the most active in shaping the direction of the debate. Starting with the oil and gas industry, British Petroleum, who does not have what one might call a stellar record on safety issues, was in the top ten of sector contributors to political campaigns and parties in the 2008 election cycle. BP wasn’t the top contributor, by far. But they certainly did alright for themselves.

If we then turn our attention to coal mining — a much smaller sector — we see that Massey Energy, the company responsible for the recent West Virginia mining disaster, also with a fairly spotted record on safety, is in the top twenty of political contributors in the sector. So far in 2010, Massey is actually clocking in at eleventh place.

Andit will come as no surprise that Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Citigroup — key architects of the 2008 financial collapse — round out the top three contributors in the 2008 election cycle for the Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate (FIRE) sector. Also in the top ten are Morgan Stanley, the American Bankers’ Association, and Bank of America.

And so in some senses, I think that Vanden Heuvel is actually in agreement with Matthew Dowd’s  anti-government screed, though they come at the issue from very different angles. The lesson here — a lesson that Vanden Heuvel and other progressives seem to have had no problem in learning — is that the last twenty-odd years of anti-regulatory rhetoric has very significant and serious impacts that many people are starting to feel in no uncertain terms.

The issue of government representation of the public good isn’t just a political, ideological, and electoral chess game. The outcome of anti-regulatory brinksmanship has been the unnecessary loss of lives, the destruction of families and futures, and environmental damage potentially so overwhelming we’re still trying to wrap our heads around it.

In short, the impacts are very, very real and very, very damaging. And so I think that Matthew Dowd calling this yet another factor in diminishing trust for the efficacy of government is, in some sense, fair ball. Though, like Vanden Heuvel, I come at that conclusion from a very different perspective.

Continued polling numbers that show plummeting trust and belief in government, coupled with a government that is not quite willing to do what it takes to earn that trust and belief leave me worried. Though such suggestions are usually laughed off as ridiculous, I fear that the US government is on the brink of a real and dangerous legitimacy crisis of its own making. Such a crisis will, as in previous cases, have far reaching effects that extend well beyond its own ostensible borders.

And so while President Obama got some laughs at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, things in the Gulf Coast got worse.  One wonders what the next crisis will be, how many will suffer as a result, and when there might be a will to own up to how deep the problems go.


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  1. collapse expand

    Pretty sad aint it? Wheres all those “drill baby drill” folks at now?

    Lou
    http://www.whos-logging.se.tc

  2. collapse expand

    When do we get to see the Regulator’s birth certificate? Whose regulates the regulator?

  3. collapse expand

    We don’t even know exactly what went wrong and everyone is already calling for more regulation!

    Our president has the right idea: let’s learn from this and then decide what to do next. All this talk of additional regulation without a shred of useful information indicates that politicians are more interested in getting in front of the issue than actually doing something about it.

    Whether you’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in the middle, making proclamations about the need for more regulation is wrong. To figure out if there needs to be further regulation, we need to figure out what happened first and decide where things went wrong. THEN we can regulate.

    • collapse expand

      Fair point.

      But it strikes me as fairly evident that whether we’re talking about mining companies like Massey, oil companies like BP, or shadow banks like Goldman Sachs, the overwhelming focus of their lobbying efforts have been aimed at stymieing regulations on their activities. And these are folks who have spent pretty vast sums (saome more than others) at “convincing” Congres that they are right. Over the past twenty years, they have largely won. What appears to be occurring now is that one crisis after another is demonstrating the potentially deadly impacts of that result.

      By all accounts, what happened in the Gulf Coast is that a safety measure that should have stopped a massive oil spill failed to do so. Why it has failed to do so is, agreed, as yet undetermined. But placing greater requirements on companies like BP to engage in the highly risky activity of off shore drilling doesn’t strike me as particularly alarmist. It strikes me as practical. Highly risky activities require a high compliance threshold for considerations of safety and I say that as someone with a modest knowledge of the industry.

      The fact of the matter is that there is a systemic antipathy towards creating and enforcing those thresholds in the United States that has existed and persisted over an extended period of time. And companies like BP have had a lot to do with that antipathy.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I’ve said this before. BP’s management has been horribly indifferent to public safety, never mind their own. You don’t have to take this from Left leaning Mother Jones. You can look it up on the Chemical Safety Board’s web site. You can read about these efforts in industry trade magazines such as Controlglobal.com.

        The sad fact is this: There are good standards already. There are good regulations already. Some companies take a responsible approach to them, and some frankly don’t care. It doesn’t take regulation to go after these companies. In fact, regulating these things for anything other than performance standards would be quite counterproductive.

        We should not prescribe technologies. That leads to a stifling of innovation and safety improvements. Instead, there is standard terminology for process safety reliability performance known as Safety Integration Level or SIL.

        The industry already knows how to do this right. Yet some operations take these guidelines to heart and do the right thing, whereas others take this as a compliance issue, do exactly what is legally mandated, and not one bit more. The latter approach is very short sighted and quite frankly is going to kill people.

        The key is to make sure management can’t weasel out of problems like this by spreading the risk too thinly. The Insurance industry, were it not already in sad shape from short sighted financial investments, probably should spend more time investigating this stuff.

        The common thread here is that people are ignoring the facts on the ground. Nobody cares whether the mine/chemical plant/refinery/oil rig is a death trap or not. Insurance and Uncle Sam pay for it instead and the executives congratulate each other on dodging yet another financial disaster.

        We need to hold executives personally liable for this behavior. I have no problem with legitimate risk taking. But I draw the line where public safety and welfare is at stake. That risk does not belong to BP. It belongs to us.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      We don’t need to know the cause of this disaster to know that we should stop off shore drilling. If we had a way to stop the oil and gas from gushing out, then we could take the risk of another blow out. Until we can solve a problem when one develops, however, we should do our drilling on land. Or better yet, conserve, and use alternatives to oil.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    The oil spill in the Gulf is a disaster. It’s been compounded by the weather, and the pressure at a mile below. Remember, we don’t fully understand what yet happend, but it appears to be a first.

    The Gulf spill doesn’t call for more regulation and needs to be put in perspective.

    We’re lucky rig accidents happend so infrequently. There are more than 4000 oil and gas facilities in the Gulf and Outer Continental Shelf. This is the first big rig spill since 1969. Exxon Valdez was a tanker accident (1998 or 89).

    We’re in deep water drilling because regulation keeps us out of shallow waters near land. More oil is lost from tankers off loading imported oil than in oil spills. And most off loading is near shore. Natural seepage of oil and gas from the ocean floor around North America is about 50 million gallons every year.

  5. collapse expand

    For the last thirty years we have been told that government is the problem, that small government is best, that the market can take care of itself and business can self regulate.

    The results of this experiment are in and this is what happened.

    In the financial industry we had the Savings and Loan scandal, Enron and the current melt down.

    In manufacturing we had entire industries move overseas, textiles, machining, steel, boat yards, the manufacture of buses, rail cars, automobiles and televisions, cell phones, computers, and furniture. Millions of jobs and skills gone.

    In the industrial/military complex we had the debacle of the management of two wars ripe with war profiteering on a shameless level with billions of dollars wasted and soldiers dying from shoddy contracting jobs.

    We discovered that the oil industry can make billions in profit and still get money from the government for research and development and still get enormous tax breaks and get away with not paying for enormous profit making leases in the Gulf. We discovered that prices at the pump can go up when there is too little oil or too much or a war is occurring somewhere or the wind is blowing somewhere.

    Banks and Wall Street and the Big Three and real estate and the defense department and now the Oil Industry have drove the average taxpayer over the cliff.

    We are broke.

    It’s the government’s fault for spending too much money. That’s the reasoning spreading across America.

    It’s true and wrong. The government wasted money propping up industries and wars while sitting on their asses at fund raising parties and letting industry write their own tickets.

    It’s popular to complain about welfare and social security and health care as wasteful. Try to start a conversation about closing US bases around the world, about getting out of the wars or ending subsidies to farmers who don’t need it or getting the oil companies to pay what they owe us in leases and ending tax breaks for giant corporations or even making them pay their taxes or finding a way to make these wall street managers pay something more than earned income taxes on their billion dollar take home pay. All of that is off the table while state and city governments go broke and libraries and police and infrastructure get cut and go to hell.

    Yeah the problem is the government and getting it to work for the people who can’t escape to Boca or Aspen to relieve their stress.

    We as a people need to wake up to the fact that only a government free of money interests is big enough to fight the monster plutocracy we the people created.

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    About Me

    I'm a Canadian blogger who spends far too much time reading and writing about US politics. I've been involved in various forms of political organizing for the past decade, some of which has earned me recognition and other of which has earned me the title of "no good punk".

    I also blog at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the Commons, Beams and Struts, and The Washington Examiner's Opinion Zone.

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