The Deepwater Horizon blowout, as the BP oil spill disaster has come to be known, may well turn out to be some kind of an environmental Armageddon before its flow of oil runs its course, deep in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Long before that point, however, even now, as a matter of fact, it has become a rallying point for political debate over whether the fault for this catastrophe lies with private industry or the government.
That debate is easily resolved if the evidence is traced to its inescapable conclusion.
First the evidence:
Corporate records made available to Congressional investigators reveal that several days before the explosion, BP officials chose, partly for financial reasons, to use a type of casing for the well that the company knew was the riskier of two available options. As a result of this decision, instead of two barriers to seal gases that might (and did) escape all the way to the wellhead, only one was in place.
Other internal BP documents released last week also indicate that the company was concerned eleven months ago about the well casing and the blowout preventer at the site. These documents show that as recently as March, BP was struggling with a loss of “well control.”
The decision to go with the more risky form of well casing came in the face of the long-standing concerns and the current struggles.
A BP spokesman, in a weak attempt to defend the decision, said that there was no “industry standard” for the casing in deepwater drills and that the casing used in this particular well was “not unusual.”
But, as Congressional testimony by corporate employees revealed last week, the decision was contested internally. One employee admitted that he witnessed a “skirmish” between a BP well-site leader and crew members. The leader reportedly ended the disagreement by saying, “Well, this is how it’s gonna be.”
Additional evidence released last week reveals that BP was extremely anxious to get the well operational. Again, money was the principal concern. By the day of the explosion, a 43-day delay had cost the company more than $21 million (based on lease charges for the rig at the well site of $533,000 per day).
The Congressional investigation is also discovering that government oversight of the project was less than aggressive. The principal reason for this laxity may be the personnel assigned the responsibility.
The key personnel in the Minerals Management Service (MMS) that has primary government oversight of off-shore oil drilling operations had been largely staffed by former corporate employees. The Obama administration, under oil-industry-friendly Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, had kept most of those employees in place after the change in administrations (from Bush to Obama). Indeed, MMS director Elizabeth Birnbaum was fired this past week because she had not cleaned house sufficiently, leaving many oil company cronies in charge of the oversight of the companies they used to work for.
So, what does this body of evidence indicate? Let’s start by stating what it clearly does not indicate.
It does not indicate that the way to avoid catastrophes like the one now spewing forth in the Gulf is to de-regulate the industry or to reduce significantly the amount of government oversight in the operations of the industry.
It also does not indicate that more government regulation and oversight of the work of the industry will inevitably lead to more “accidents” like the one currently playing itself out in the Gulf.
And it does not indicate that placing former industry executives and high-ranking management types in government oversight/regulatory roles promotes better oversight and regulation of the industry.
Of course, you don’t need an advanced degree in rhetoric or business administration or political science to come to those conclusions, although each of them have been argued in true sophistic fashion by right-wing talk show hosts and, in some instances, even by elected politicians.
So let’s be clear: The current disaster was not caused by the federal government. It was caused by an industry that has used its influence to create soft regulatory requirements, that has filled many of the regulatory positions with former employees, and that has been left, by and large, to make its own decisions on how to proceed in drilling for oil.
And let’s also be clear: To the extent that the federal government has not been active enough in rescuing the industry from its own misfeasance and incompetence, the problem is not too much distinction between the regulators and the regulated, but too little.
Many on the right are rallying around the idea that this disaster is Obama’s Katrina. If properly understood, the evidence completely belies that argument. Katrina was a natural disaster that had no private industry component. It was a situation that was wholly and completely the responsibility of government (federal, state and local) to deal with.
The current disaster in the Gulf is completely the result of industry activity. While the exact panoply of causes remains to be discerned, no one can argue that this “accident” was a natural occurrence. It was caused by the actions of private industry. Thus, it is private industry that must be responsible for repairing it. If government had a role in the creation of the disaster, it was in the failure of regulatory oversight. And if government has failed in the process of containment, it is not because that role was assigned to it before the fact.
What might a more aggressive posture by the Obama administration have been? Would it have been proper to remove BP from the containment process? How would such a step indicate anything other than a failure of unrestrained corporate power? Some have even suggested that BP should have been “nationalized” by some unclear and unspecified presidential prerogative. How loud would the cries of “socialism” have been had Obama taken such an action?
No, those claims just don’t hold water. The evidence is clear and points to only one conclusion: The disaster in the gulf is an indictment of deregulated corporate activity when the public welfare is at stake.