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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Deepwater disaster could have been prevented

As I write a river of oil blows towards the Gulf coast. Details of the precipitating event have emerged. Blame is squarely on BP, British Petroleum.

Victims of the tragedy include fisherman--recreational and commercial. I'm sure the economic impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig-turned gusher will be far worse than predicted.

The worst part of this tragedy is that the well continues to leak. Huge amounts of oil remain unseen, under the surface. Considering the well's depth, at some 5,000 feet, an emergency operation remains challenging and an easy fix elusive. The wellhead is on the ocean's floor and spewing out an indeterminate amount of oil.

Part of the crisis response effort has been to bring as many parties as possible on board. BP's chief of operations said any help from anyone would be accepted. This methodology leaves me wondering if the response has been as dynamic and robust as needed--shouldn't BP be more specific than accepting all help? I mean, I would hope BP has a planned response more detailed than just throwing more resources at it, like the miles of boon that have been laid in a feeble attempt to stem the tide.

Looking back at Katrina, the Deepwater disaster sends echoes of government inaction. All the parties involved in the response undoubtedly don't want to appear to be doing nothing. So official news briefings and perception management try to appear responsive and robust, whether or not they actually are. The result is that the parties responsible for the response try to offer counter-directional spin in the mainstream media--that they're doing something, which is evidence of an agenda other than to tell the public the unbiased, whole truth, no matter how ugly.

Oddly, many news networks devoted constant air time to a serious but failed car bomb attack at Time Square. Conspiracists will no doubt be quickly guessing that the one had something to do with the other. In this sense the Internet hosts in hyper-time huge numbers of doubters of the Official Explanation: a growing crowd of wired non-conformists eager to confront media myths, spin, and blackouts.

Coordination between the Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of the Interior involves massive layers of government bureaucracy. All three organs have their own heads, and while interagency communication protocols may make coordination easier, there are simply too many decision-makers to react quickly enough to a tragedy of this size.

We don't know if a single head of the operation would be better or not. Right now a Coast Guard admiral is at the head of a multi-pronged response that also includes BP and Transocean, the rig operator.

Issues of whether or not the response is adequate or expeditious can certainly wait. In the meantime we have a New Orleans Katrina-type environment evolving. The poor, mostly black people stuck in the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center have been caught on television, demanding rescue. Expect this time instead of people, there are birds who stand to be coated in oil--an event which will certainly remind Americans of the Exxon Valdez tragedy in 1989.

In that episode, thousands of Alaskan salmon fisherman were made unemployed for years. The case reached the Supreme Court only a few years ago. Over the years, the Court had turned largely sympathetic to the interests of Big Oil and ruled against any punitive damages. The legal case did foretell a sequence of what might be called "pro-business" rulings, the latest of which has been to give corporations legal standing as corporations--a completely ridiculous notion that I attack on the second page of my last article at OpEdNews.com.

However unsatisfying the final ruling on the Exxon Valdez judgement, the Courts also took too long to resolve the case. The delay came as a direct result of Exxon's massive legal effort to delay a settlement, based on the premise that the interest on the settlement was more valuable to the company than a final adjudication. So the case went on, with no side but rather the lawyers winning.

I pity the poor fisherman and their families in the Gulf who rely on clean waters for their livelihood. The tragedy will expand geometrically if the oil flow isn't curtailed, which appears to be a difficult and time-consuming task. Estimates for the size of the oil deposit vary. If something isn't done to stop the flow, we could be facing one of the worst environmental tragedies to hit our country.

The emerging economic impact will be two-fold. First, there will be the loss of jobs in fisheries, and other professions dependent on the seas. And the loss of income will reverberate through the communities that live the Gulf. We might see a wave of environmental refugees forced northward, unemployed and miserable, bearing little money and down on their luck. This would be like the days after Katrina, where an exodus out of the city left natives of New Orleans marooned far from their city.

Then there will be a drop in tourism due to the fouled beaches. The tourist impact will be the largest fiscal cost. I heard on CNN that Walton County, Florida is projecting to experience as much as a $1 billion loss in economic activity. If one county faces that kind of loss, the entire region--which compromises some of the nicest beaches in America, could face economic devastation.

The impact of this tragedy will last for years. For as long as oil plagues the water, the ecosystem will suffer and the business that depend on it, too. Despite modern technology, and frequent urging to "drill, baby, drill", the economic benefits of domestic drilling will be overshadowed by the consequences of potential spills.

If domestic drilling were a solution to our energy dependency--a notion with which I disagree--then the Deepwater incident should be cause for real alarm. Incidentally, it's not the blow to oil production that a moratorium on drilling presents, but rather the potential impact of spills on affected businesses and consumers. Calculated into the drill-at-all cost "solution" must be the direct costs of pollution and spills, which will easily eclipse the value of the oil itself.

For BP, the cleanup appears to be at this point simply be the "cost of doing business." This sounds a lot like Massey's energy recent mine explosion, which came as the result of numerous safety violations.

If BP, like Massey, was simply ignoring the infractions to save money on correcting the underlying problems, then this tragedy could have been prevented. If regulations were not enforced, then our government bears much responsibility.

No matter what the eventual court settlement, or how long it takes, BP will likely avoid many of the damages due to sympathetic judges on the Supreme Court. As long as rulings like that which granted corporate personage continue to emanate forth from On High, it's unlikely that polluters will face the full fiscal ramifications of their regulatory non-compliance.

You can see a clear pattern developing where the government fails to enforce regulations, which may in the short term benefit corporate constituents. The Massey and BP incidents show--alongside the far-bigger financial bailout--just how close government and the corporate interest have conjoined. Ironically, the Deepwater incident will reveal the real economic cost of not complying with safety standards and regulatory compliance.

Without a viable third estate--an unbiased and unafraid media--it's unlikely corporations will be held accountable. Worse, the lack of investigative journalism--for fear of alienating advertisers--will cultivate an attitude of defiance among the regulated. The lack of negative consequences will encourage potential polluters and companies intent on exploiting their influence and the lack of regulatory enforcement. Maybe the hot to BP's stock price will be sufficient incentive to avoid safety errors of this magnitude. Or perhaps not, particularly if BP has the benefit of sympathetic courts.

In its Texas refinery fire a few months back, BP showed itself to be the kind of company that shirks its regulatory responsibilities. In the Deepwater incident, it's joined by Transocean, a company about which I know little, and the infamous Halliburton, a company formerly led by Dick Cheney, who held approximately two million shares of company stock while serving as Vice President. Halliburton, by the way, had its stock price climb over 200% as a result of the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. It's been accused of shoddy construction, illicit deals, and a myriad of other ethical violations in Iraq.

So should we be surprised that a corruption of the public interest precedes a environmental catastrophe? Of course not. As much as the Republicans bang away against regulation, a major cause for the worst economic events of the recent past can be directly traced to inadequate enforcement by federal agencies.

The Minerals Mining Services is a branch of the Department of the Interior that was caught accepting hookers and drugs in exchange for favorable treatment of businesses signing leases with the federal government. M.M.S. has offered bargain-basement leasing terms in sweetheart deals to extractive industries. So bad were some of these contracts that they were actually renegotiated after the scandal broke. See this article at propublica.org for more.

All this collusion between big business and the federal government really does show how badly corrupt both have become. The businesses spend to wine and dine in Washington through trade associations and industry groups. Meanwhile, politicians eagerly dispense reciprocal favors, resulting in a perversion of the enforcement scheme, not too unlike the Madoff case. Madoff's daughter actually married a SEC auditor!

One common hallmark of manmade disasters is that the corruption and regulatory breakdown lead to even bigger disasters. Without enforcing the rules on the books--a task which can only fall to government--scandals and disasters will be both worse and more frequent, as were seeing in our society today.


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