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Brief Thoughts on the Oil Spill

[ 13 ] May 31, 2010 |

Haven’t been blogging on the spill, because I know next to nothing about deep sea oil drilling or cleanup. I do want to echo a bit what John Cole wrote here; the situation that we’ve produced for ourselves is one in which, unfortunately, we have to depend on BP to handle the problem. BP has greater familiarity with the area and with the particular mechanics of the well than any other actor, and certainly than any actor in the US government. There are engineers outside BP with similar levels of expertise, but they all pretty much work for big oil companies, too. This post in particular struck me as ill-conceived:

The administration has been keeping an ecological criminal in charge of the crime scene during a national crisis. Seventeen nations have offered assistance — but “the final decision is up to BP” to accept it, according to the State Department — and only Canada, Mexico and Norway have been allowed to help so far. The law — Title 33, Section 1321 — mandates that President Obama “shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge,” using any means necessary. There are not any resources — people or equipment — that Obama doesn’t have the authority to seize and put into service.

It’s certainly fair to expect that private sector resources may be needed for this disaster, but BP’s only unique qualification for the disaster response is that it is the perpetrator. Although BP is by default a party responsible for implementing the cleanup plan, it is by no means the only possibility. The rig was operated by Transocean; the cementing done by Halliburton; the blowout preventer built by Cameron. Other companies involved in ultra-deepwater drilling include engineering giant Schlumberger, Norway’s nationalized oil company Statoil, Shell, and Chevron.

If the Navy can’t direct the undersea mission after it’s given authority over any needed private resources, it calls into question why we entrust it to operate aircraft carriers and nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered submarines.

The last bit is particularly idiotic; the Navy can operate aircraft carriers and nuclear armed, nuclear-powered submarines because it has trained for decades to do so. It can’t cap oil spills because it hasn’t spent years incorporating that capability. It might be a good idea for the USN to focus more on this particular kind of disaster management, and indeed I think that such focus would fit rather comfortably into the broad outlines of CS-21, but nevertheless.

The second problem is that all of the potential alternatives are also private companies, all of which have less stake and less interest in the situation than BP. It can fairly be argued that BP has done poorly thus far and has not exhibited a sufficient degree of urgency, but there’s little reason to think that Shell or Chevron, with no particular interest in the disaster, would proceed with any additional urgency. Options such as nationalizing BP make more sense in the medium term, but not much in the short. Indeed, the threat of nationalization is probably more effective than actual nationalization, until the crisis is over. If BP believes that US assets are at stake (rather than already gone), it might pursue cleanup operations with additional vigor. Seizing the relevant assets of the company now (“There are not any resources — people or equipment — that Obama doesn’t have the authority to seize and put into service,” as Brad puts it) doesn’t mean that the people with expertise will have an interest in working for the US government, or that they’ll work faster for the government than they’d work for BP.

So what are Obama’s failures in this case? I can think of a few off the top of my head:

1. While it’s fair to blame the Bush administration for leaving the MMS a shambles, acknowledging that the service was gutted doesn’t spare Obama. One of the core functions of the Obama administration from the beginning should have been identifying critical nodes of governance that Bush and his cronies had essentially destroyed, and capabilities involving mineral extraction should have been the first place that they looked. It’s not as if mineral extraction was a small sideshow in the Bush administration’s effort to destroy government oversight capability; it was the main feature. From all indications, the Obama administration failed to note this or to do anything productive about it until too late.

2. The Obama administration could have and should have adopted a more adversarial tone towards BP in the immediate wake of the disaster. Such a tone might have conveyed the gravity of the situation, and perhaps convinced BP to treat the spill as a genuine disaster rather than as a PR problem. I don’t have a clear sense of what could have been done in the early period that wasn’t, but then neither did the administration.

3. Obama’s decision to open more areas to offshore drilling is going to go down as one of the great “own goals” of American political history. It was a stupid, ill-informed decision that he made in order to undercut Sarah Palin and other Republican energy policy critics. While it’s fair to acknowledge that Obama couldn’t have known that the disaster would happen in such a short time frame following the announcement, he surely must have understood that more offshore drilling would result in more disastrous spills. Instead of being able to utterly gut the GOP energy position, he’s left apologizing for it. Stupid, stupid, stupid….

4. Obama also missed an opportunity to make a philosophical distinction between Republican and sane approaches to economic regulation. In this case, BP was allowed to engage in economic behavior that ran the risk of massive, widespread destruction and that was not, apparently, reversible even by BP’s own internal engineers. This should have resulted in a fantastic case study for why certain economic functions ought never, ever, ever to be left in the hands of minimally regulated private industry. Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned opening of additional areas to drilling and because of a wider Democratic unwillingness to make sensible arguments about governance, private industry, and regulation, this opportunity is being lost.

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Comments (13)

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  1. MkeN says:

    “Haven’t been blogging on the spill, because I know next to nothing about deep sea oil drilling or cleanup.”

    Keep that up and they’re going to take away your blogging license.

  2. Joel Patterson says:

    “Stupid, stupid, stupid”

    Yep.

    It seems that the biggest Dems in actual positions of power are not aware that they can, with speeches, prepare the way for more progressive government, to undo the Republican policies of allowing risks and harm for the many in order to benefit of the few who donate large checks to the GOP.

  3. DrDick says:

    While I pretty much agree with what you say, I think Obama does deserve a little bit more slack on MMS. MMS has been a monumental clusterfuck for well over 50 years and the subject numerous scandals and congressional investigations since the 1950s. Every president since Eisenhower has had the opportunity, and need, to reform the agency and has failed to do so.

    My own knowledge of the agency relates to its handling of Indian trust leases, which it manages. MMS is at the heart of the current multi-billion dollar Cobell suit currently awaiting congressional approval of the settlement with individual Indian land owners.

    • DrDick says:

      Oops, my bad. MMS was only created in 1982 and it was their predecessors in the Interior Department which was at fault for the earlier problems. Nonetheless, these problems at Interior are longstanding and have resisted all efforts at reform.

      • Notorious P.A.T. says:

        You are right: this problem, like every problem Obama faces, predates his oath of office by a long time. But, them’s the breaks. It’s a president’s job to work on all our country’s emergencies, not just the new ones. I would think that a personnel shake-up is one of the easier fixes available to a new president.

        • Hogan says:

          I would think that a personnel shake-up is one of the easier fixes available to a new president.

          As long as it doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

        • DrDick says:

          You would think, but history seems to suggest otherwise. In point of fact, MMS was created to correct the previous problems with DoI leasing programs.

  4. cpinva says:

    yes indeed, those rocket scientists at FOX, et al keep wanting to know why obama and FEMA aren’t actually in the water, plugging that leak, and scooping up all the oil. possibly because neither is in the business of doing so. nor is our military, not their forte’.

    and yet, the right-wing swill machine goes on.

    • Left_Wing_Fox says:

      Here’s what I wonder.

      What would have happened if from Day 1 of the disaster, FEMA was ordered to start being Plan C. Start calling the geologists, competitor companies, and international cleanup crews, so that their resources were at the disposal of BP for Plan A, enable them to better evaluate BP’s plans and proposals to know that if their Plan A failed, then they would have reasonable alternative for Plan B, and if not, then at least the government would have a Plan C ready to implement ASAP, and big-time fines for BP to help reimburse the cost of cleanup.

      As it is, it seems as if there is no contingency plan for BP’s failures to shut down the well. The cleanup is completely reliant on them, and they don’t have the welfare of the people at large as their first priority; they have minimizing profit loss and as their priority.

  5. 4. Obama also missed an opportunity to make a philosophical distinction between Republican and sane approaches to economic regulation.

    It’s not clear to me that Obama wants a meaningful distinction (as opposed to a p.r. distinction).

    For example in both health care reform and financial reform, it appears to me that the dominant decision making factor was to retain the goodwill, and therefore the campaign contributions, of the big corporations involved.

    And getting back to point 1), the first thing Obama did was appoint Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior. Salazar is as pro-extraction as any Democrat you could name.
    ~

  6. Hanspeter says:

    The part I don’t understand is why there’s so much downtime between failed attempts. “Oh, Top Hat didn’t work. Let’s sit around for a week to plan the next attempt and then try that 3 days later.”

    When the first containment dome failed with buoyant hydrates, news reports immediately reported on proposed engineering changes to vent the frozen hydrates and reduce their lift. These changes obviously can’t be made overnight, but why wasn’t it being done while the next try (Top Hat?) was underway? Now that Top Kill failed, why wasn’t the next plan that was designed during the Top Kill run put immediately into effect?

  7. Rebecca says:

    There are actually 3 separate issues here: the spill/leak, protecting the shores/wetlands and the cleanup.

    BP has a huge stake in getting the leak plugged, but their knowledge and equipment are obviously not up to the task. From the beginning, they were asking for help from anyone willing to offer it.

    They should be responsible for the cost of the cleanup, but let them concentrate on plugging the leak and put people who have experience in cleaning oil out of the environment in charge of that task.

    Preventing the oil from reaching the coast is where the Obama administration fell down on the job, particularly in regards to Louisiana, and the people in that state are well aware of it. Though Bobby Jindal may have been asking for the impossible, there was no excuse for Louisiana not to have received at least as much in preventive resources as Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

    Of course, Louisiana didn’t support Obama, and never will. But the problem is that Grand Isle seems to have become the center of the universe and a majority of the American public is keeping tabs on this oil spill. Yet all Obama had to offer is that there have been a lot of meetings and briefings.

    In the beginning, it was ludicrous to call the oil spill Obama’s Katrina, although he was definitely stupid to have given over to the other side on this issue as well as so many others. But now, and in the very near future, this will become even bigger for him than Katrina was for Bush. Because he has completely mishandled the entire situation and continues to do so.

    He’s missed every single opportunity to capitalize on the PR advantages he could have gained, and now it’s too late. He really hasn’t done anything of value in this situation and doesn’t seem to understand just how it’s reflecting on him.

    But that shouldn’t be too surprising, since he’s been that way about every single issue he campaigned on since he took office. He is the most hands off president in history. And that’s about to blow up in his face.

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