All through the process of bringing the well online, BP shorted the safety considerations they are obligated to observe in search of some extra profit, on a well that will likely still produce a stunning flow of cash once they finally get its oil headed up a pipe and into a refinery.
Those failures caused the disaster, starting with an explosion and fire that killed 11 people on the rig itself, and continuing with driving ecological and economic devastation that will certainly be the worst from any single event in US history. The area under direct threat from this negligence includes 40% of the coastal wetlands in the country, and the impact on the wildlife and the breeding habitat for the gulf coast fishery will be felt for decades to come, if not forever. The irresponsibility that produced the disaster in the first place would be bad enough, but if anything, BP’s malfeasance has only increased in pace since the disaster began.
In hearings before Congress last week, the senior management at BP claimed that they have made major investments in technology that have made offshore drilling much safer since the last huge offshore undersea blowout in the Gulf, the Ixtoc well in Mexican waters in the 1970s. As the senior management witnesses were making these claims in DC, the engineers were winging it on the ocean floor, trying the exact same ad hoc nonsense that they tried to manage the Ixtoc disaster thirty years ago. That’s not particularly surprising, because what they described as a large investment in safety over the last 25 years ($1.3 billion) equates with approximately 1 week’s profit for the company. They spent that amount over 25 years, and they want credit for that level of investment. It’s mind-boggling.
Since the explosion, BP has consistently underestimated the size and scope of the problem (what they first described as a flow rate of about 1000 barrels of oil per day has been independently estimated over the last three weeks to actually be somewhere between 20 and 45 thousand barrels per day). They have been using dispersants on the oil with no real idea about the actual long-term effects of doing so on the sea life that come into contact with those chemicals and no idea if the dispersants will work to mitigate the effects of the oil fouling the Gulf, because they have no experience with trying to mitigate the effects of a “spill” this size. After getting told by the EPA that they had to change the chemical they used from one (made by a BP subsidiary) that is banned in many parts of the world because it’s too toxic, they continued to use it and are still using it to this day. They claim that they have no other supplies of dispersant in sufficient quantities to make a difference, but again, they don’t know what the effects of the use of the dispersants is anyway – the only thing they do know is that the dispersants make the oil harder to spot on the surface and therefore less likely to produce outrage among the public at large.
BP has claimed that they intend to make everyone who is affected by this disaster whole for their losses, saying that they will “pay all legitimate claims”, but anyone who thinks that’s true is living in a Panglossian dreamworld. Already, after initial checks of $5000 delivered with great fanfare, the flow of those monies is coming way too slowly to save the businesses that are being devastated by this spill now ($5000 is a drop in the bucket to a commercial fisherman in season, and if you find me a shrimp boat captain or a fishing guide who is going to have the financial cushion to wait for a court to judge if the claims are “legitimate”, I’ll show you someone who is working as a hobby). Meanwhile, they are lobbying intensively in Congress to prevent the removal of the woefully inadequate $75 million damage cap that is being considered at present, and they are forum shopping to have all the civil court claims against them heard by a single judge in Houston who is invested in the oil and gas industry and regularly gives speeches to industry groups around the world about legal strategies for oil companies.
In addition to all of this, they have been playing games since the beginning of the disaster with access to the image stream of the blowout since they first got cameras down to the site of the breach, and they are still restricting access to the shorelines under threat and the cleanup operations that are underway along the Gulf coast and out at sea, despite the fact that the areas they are “closing” are public lands and waters, to which they have no conceivable right to control access. Moreover, they have been busy trying to deny the existence of plumes of oil underwater that have been spotted by several separate research vessels doing damage assessment for NOAA and other academic institutions (Univ. of Southern Mississippi, Univ. of Mississippi, Univ. of Georgia, Univ. of South Florida, among others), claiming that oil is lighter than water and therefore all the oil is on the surface or soon will be. They make this claim in the full knowledge that the one certain effect of the dispersants they’ve been using is to slow the ascent of oil through the water column, making the existence of undersea plumes much more likely. They’ve been claiming that oil that has appeared on several beaches is not from the blowout, claiming (without providing any supporting evidence) that it is from other sources in the Gulf.
The assistance they have received from local, state, and federal authorities in effecting a good deal of this dishonesty and obstructionism has been very troubling, and the lack of thundering outrage on the part of media outlets about BPs control of the information coming out of the area is a disgrace. I can understand the reticence of local and even state governments about challenging BP’s control of the response to the disaster, in light of the fact that they are dependent on BPs response to save their economies and finally stop the well. What is utterly incomprehensible is the federal timidity in the face of this disaster, and equally outrageous is the equanimity with which the national media have acquiesced to being taken on company tours of whatever BP would like them to see, instead of being allowed into the area to go and look for themselves.
Finally, after the “top kill” charade played itself out last weekend (it becomes increasingly apparent that BP waited as long as possible before releasing the news about which they were pretty certain several days earlier, namely that the techniques they were trying weren’t working), the president made a speech that began to capture some of the national anger about this mess, and the Justice Department finally announced that it would investigate whether BP or its management had engaged in criminal behavior in regards to the disaster.
The Coast Guard, though, is helping BP to control access to the site of the blowout and the areas that are under threat, and NOAA has just recently signed onto BP’s skepticism about the existence of underwater oil plumes, despite the fact that its own researchers are among those who have noted the presence of oil throughout the water column, including both chemical testing and visual confirmation of what can only be described as plumes of oil below the surface of the Gulf.
I can understand some of NOAA’s caution in reaching final conclusions about the extent of the plumes their researchers have found, and the Coast Guard may have some interest in making sure that there isn’t a traffic jam in the disaster area from reporters making overflights, but they seem to have gone considerably farther than that in abetting BP’s damage control PR effort. Reprimanding scientists who speak to reporters about what they’ve found isn’t the same thing as being cautious about final conclusions, and preventing access to beaches being cleaned up is going too far to preserve the interests of the culprits in this nightmare.
Charles Krauthammer has apparently opined recently in the Washington Post that for the Justice Department to investigate BP’s responsibility for and response to the catastrophe is tantamount to “declaring war” on BP. That’s arrant nonsense, but it does raise an interesting point, i.e., that it’s about time that the federal government DID go to war on BP. Robert Reich has suggested that the federal government act under its emergency authority to place BP in temporary receivership, to make certain that all necessary resources are brought to bear on BP to force it to start (way too late) behaving responsibly about this flood of poison into our natural heritage and the economic and ecological consequences of their criminal negligence. James Carville, whose cries of anguish have been much in the news lately, has been making statements that are difficult to support about the reaction to this crisis carrying a unique burden of prejudice against his home state, but among those accusations is at least one very good idea – that prosecution of those responsible would go a long way to focusing the minds of those at BP who are still working on behalf of their shareholders on the fact that they have a greater responsibility to the general public at this point.
In addition to bearing down on those whose negligent policies have brought us this disaster, it’s time the federal government started acting unequivocally in support of the public interest, without regard to the interests of BP, whose management long ago forfeited any right to consideration of its interests in this matter. The company's US assets should be frozen until everyone who has been damaged by this blowout has been as fully compensated as money can provide (which still won't begin to cover the damage they've caused). Finally, it's time to stop hiding the extent of the disaster, since to do so is to directly damage the public interest in knowing what happened and what is happening now to respond to this crisis. Anyone in government who restricts reasonable access to covering this spill should be fired on the spot, and anyone who works for BP that tries the same thing should be jailed. It’s long past time that we stopped worrying about the delicate sensibilities of those who caused this tragedy and started deciding which of them gets to do some hard time for presiding over this cavalcade of incompetence, negligence, and deception.