Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fed Response To Spill Coated In Congressional Grease Of 1989

This scene is etched forever in my mind. It was Labor Day 2005. Thousands of mostly black faces were in anguish, deprived for days of food and water. They were gathered at the entrance to the Superdome in New Orleans where they were taken and abandoned to escape the high waters created by Hurricane Katrina.

On live television, a pleading Shepard Smith, the correspondent for Fox News, had lost all semblance of objectivity and became the voice of humanity screaming into the cameras "When in God's name is help coming to rescue these poor people?"

Back in the air-conditioned Fox studio in New York City, one of the panel of commentators observed, and I am paraphrasing here: "This is what happens when people rely solely on the federal government to come to their rescue."

No other incident across the board from Democrat to Republican, from poor to rich, from black to the whitest Caucasian, epitomized the perception than the Bush administration's response to Katrina as completely inept.

Here it is almost five years later, a month and three days after an oil spill remains uncapped in the Gulf of Mexico, that a tsunami of discontent grown mostly from frustration is threatened to undermine the Obama administration to one term.

Unlike George Bush, Obama doesn't need a Don Bartlett to cobble news videos of the Gulf coastline to get up to speed. Obama gets it.

In times of crises, people look for a scapegoat. In the Gulf oil disaster, there are two. The president, who can be fired by the people. Or BP, the culprit owning responsibility for the leak, which the people can't fire.

As for the scapegoating business, let's review.

"What I don't like from the president's administration is this sort of, 'I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP,'" said Rand Paul, fresh from his Republican senatorial nomination victory in Kentucky, in an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America." He was referring to a comment widely quoted from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business."  Paul, a libertarian, said he had heard nothing from BP indicating it wouldn't pay for the spill. "And I think it's part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it's always got to be somebody's fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen." 


"The government should have stepped in and not just taken BP's word," declared Wayne Stone of Marathon, Fla., an avid diver who worries about the spill's effect on the ecosystem. 


Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry took BP to task for not responding aggressively enough to oil coming ashore in Terrebonne Parish, La., to the west of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Knowing BP dropped chemical dispersents from the air on the Gulf's oil slick surface and watching rough seas and winds sink the protective oil boom collectors off his shoreline in Grand Isle, La., Mayor Pro Tem Jay Lafont, a former Exxon employee, witnessed the "then" and "now" with globs of oil washing onto the beaches.

"We knew it was a matter of time... We had nothing but time, and BP did nothing but waste it....
 This could kill Grand Isle for years to come," LaFont said.

For two weeks, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has urged to no avail the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers to sign off on a hastily resurrected plan to build 80 miles of sand berms along the state's coast in a desperate panic to keep the spill from infiltrating the state's fragile wetlands and estuaries.

Even a letter to Obama from Louisiana Sen. David Vitter to expedite the $350 million project has gone unheeded. The case illustrates the lack of transparency in the federal bureaucracies as well as the questionable fixes proposed by well-intentioned people.

Those who point fingers at the slow response by the federal government are whistling at the wrong tree. The bad guys here are not the Obama administration but the 1989 Congress which shifted the cleanup responsibilities from the government to the offending oil companies.

Reacting to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince Edwards Sound in Alaska, that Congress in its infinite wisdom also capped oil company damage liability to businesses and other victims at $75 million. A bill to increase that liability to $10 billion by the 2010 Senate has twice been blocked by Republicans.

Now lets explore the facts as we know them. The Deepwater Horizons platform that exploded and sank is not the only deep water oil drilling operation in the Gulf. It IS the first to sustain an accident, this one a mile below the surface. 

The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service regulates the drilling but shirked its responsibilities by taking the word of BP officials that the drilling was safe even though there were no contingency plans for a major leak and even though a rescue operation had never before been attempted at such extreme depths where pressure from the earth's crust is measured at 50,000 pounds per square inch.

Despite a flurry of inquiries by congressional oversight committees months before the leak is hopefully plugged and only a few days after it occurred, President Obama Saturday did what all presidents do. Appoint a commission.

"If the laws on our books are inadequate to prevent such an oil spill, or if we didn't enforce those laws -- I want to know it," Obama said in his weekly address. "I want to know what worked and what didn't work in our response to the disaster, and where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down."
The president said in the address that he will appoint former Florida governor Bob Graham (D) and William K. Reilly (R), a former EPA administrator, to head the commission, a move that he said will ensure the panel gets to the bottom of the incident.

Obama said he will appoint five other members to the panel, provide them with subpoena powers and report back to the president in six months.
Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, the go-to guy that got the federal response in Katrina rolling, feels as frustrated as the public officials, fishermen, shrimpers and oyster lovers. "Nobody likes to have a feeling that you can't do something about a very big problem," Allen said. 
Assigned to lead the oil spill cleanup response from the government's position as second chair to BP, Allen admits there's not much that can be done except to take names and kick butt until the leak is finally capped.

Despite the smart-ass remark by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) ridiculing BP's efforts that "the best minds were on the case, we expected MIT and not the PGA," BP and the feds have collected the best in the world.

As in the "Apollo 13" movie with the famous line "Houston, we have a problem," it is in a Houston office park where hundreds of engineers from universities, rival oil companies and the federal government are working 13-hour shifts to solve a problem in days what under normal circumstances would take a year or more and, of course, should have been done originally.
Here's one account of the imported government experts
Then came the "dream team" that President Obama had ordered his Nobel-winning energy secretary, Steven Chu, to assemble: out-of-the-box thinkers including a nuclear physicist, a pioneer on Mars drilling techniques, an MIT professor whose research interests include "going faster on my snowboard," an expert on the hydrogen bomb, and a controversial astrophysicist who was later booted over a past essay defending homophobia.

All the capping efforts so far have failed. The team has managed to siphon about 2,000 bpd from the 21-inch pipe to a waiting oil tanker on the surface this past week.

What Markey's snarky remarks about the PGA referred to is scheduled to go into operation Sunday.

Lately, engineers have rehearsed the "top kill," which will pump drilling fluid, or a rubbery mixture (resembling golf balls) dubbed the "junk shot," or both, into the well. They have made dry runs on a blowout preventer elsewhere in Houston. In the command center, they've been "killing it on paper," (Coast Guard engineer Lt. Kirtland) Linegar said, going step by step through the process, game-planning for every possible problem. The stakes are high: Poorly executed, the top kill could blow the top of the blowout preventer and dramatically increase the oil spill's volume.


The final solution is three to four months away. Drilling is approaching an 8,000-foot depth to connect a new pipe to the old, ruptured one that, engineers promise, would pernanently cut off the leak and pumping operations could continue.

That is, this time, if the government allows it.

No comments: