BP is the last oil company on Earth that Salazar and MMS should have allowed to regulate itself. The firm is implicated in each of the worst oil disasters in American history, dating back to the Exxon Valdez in 1989. At the time, BP directed the industry consortium that bungled the cleanup response to Valdez during the fateful early hours of the spill, when the worst of the damage occurred. Vital equipment was buried under snow, no cleanup ship was standing by and no containment barge was available to collect skimmed oil. Exxon, quickly recognizing what still seems to elude the Obama administration, quickly shunted BP aside and took control of the spill.
In March 2006, BP was responsible for an Alaska pipeline rupture that spilled more than 250,000 gallons of crude into Prudhoe Bay – at the time, a spill second in size only to the Valdez disaster. Investigators found that BP had repeatedly ignored internal warnings about corrosion brought about by "draconian" cost cutting. The company got off cheap in the spill: While the EPA recommended slapping the firm with as much as $672 million in fines, the Bush administration allowed it to settle for just $20 million.
BP has also cut corners at the expense of its own workers. In 2005, 15 workers were killed and 170 injured after a tower filled with gasoline exploded at a BP refinery in Texas. Investigators found that the company had flouted its own safety procedures and illegally shut off a warning system before the blast. An internal cost-benefit analysis conducted by BP – explicitly based on the children's tale The Three Little Pigs – revealed that the oil giant had considered making buildings at the refinery blast-resistant to protect its workers (the pigs) from an explosion (the wolf). BP knew lives were on the line: "If the wolf blows down the house, the piggy is gobbled." But the company determined it would be cheaper to simply pay off the families of dead pigs.
After the blast, BP pleaded guilty to a felony, paying $50 million to settle a criminal investigation and another $21 million for violating federal safety laws. But the fines failed to force BP to change its ways. In October, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis hit the company with a proposed $87 million in new fines – the highest in history – for continued safety violations at the same facility. Since 2007, according to analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, BP has received 760 citations for "egregious and willful" safety violations – those "committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health." The rest of the oil industry combined has received a total of one.
The company applied the same deadly cost-cutting mentality to its oil rig in the Gulf. BP, it is important to note, is less an oil company than a bank that finances oil exploration; unlike ExxonMobil, which owns most of the equipment it uses to drill, BP contracts out almost everything. That includes the Deepwater Horizon rig that it leased from a firm called Transocean. BP shaved $500,000 off its overhead by deploying a blowout preventer without a remote-control trigger – a fail-safe measure required in many countries but not mandated by MMS, thanks to intense industry lobbying. It opted to use cheap, single-walled piping for the well, and installed only six of the 21 cement spacers recommended by its contractor, Halliburton – decisions that significantly increased the risk of a severe explosion. It also skimped on critical testing that could have shown whether explosive gas was getting into the system as it was being cemented, and began removing mud that protected the well before it was sealed with cement plugs.
As BP was cutting corners aboard the rig, the Obama administration was plotting the greatest expansion of offshore drilling in half a century. In 2008, as prices at the pump neared $5 a gallon, President Bush had lifted an executive moratorium on offshore drilling outside the Gulf that had been implemented by his father following the Exxon Valdez. On the campaign trail, Obama had stressed that offshore drilling "will not make a real dent in current gas prices or meet the long-term challenge of energy independence." But once in office, he bowed to the politics of "drill, baby, drill." Hoping to use oil as a bargaining chip to win votes for climate legislation in Congress, Obama unveiled an aggressive push for new offshore drilling in the Arctic, the Southeastern seaboard and new waters in the Gulf, closer to Florida than ever before. In doing so, he ignored his administration's top experts on ocean science, who warned that the offshore plan dramatically understated the risks of an oil spill and petitioned Salazar to exempt the Arctic from drilling until more scientific studies could be conducted.
Undeterred, Obama and Salazar appeared together at Andrews Air Force Base on March 31st to introduce the plan. The stagecraft was pure Rove in its technicolor militaristic patriotism. The president's podium was set up in front of the cockpit of an F-18, flanked by a massive American flag. "We are not here to do what is easy," Salazar declared. "We are here to do what is right." He insisted that his reforms at MMS were working: "We are making decisions based on sound information and sound science." The president, for his part, praised Salazar as "one of the finest secretaries of Interior we've ever had" and stressed that his administration had studied the drilling plan for more than a year. "This is not a decision that I've made lightly," he said. Two days later, he issued an even more sweeping assurance. "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," the president said. "They are technologically very advanced."
Eighteen days later, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon rig went off like a bomb.
From the start of its operation in the Gulf, BP had found itself struggling against powerful "kicks" from gas buildup, just as MMS had warned. Now, on April 20th, the pent-up methane exploded in a fireball that incinerated 11 workers. Like a scene out of a real-life Jerry Bruckheimer film, the half-billion-dollar rig – 32,000 tons and 30 stories tall – listed over and sank to the bottom two days later, taking a mile of pipe down with it.
Within hours, the government assembled a response team at the "war room" of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. The scene, captured by a NOAA cameraman and briefly posted on the agency's website, provides remarkable insight into the government's engagement during the earliest hours of the catastrophe, and, more troubling, the role of top administration figures in downplaying its horrific scope.
At a conference table, nearly a dozen scientists gather around a map of the Gulf. Joshua Slater, a commissioned NOAA officer dressed in his uniform, runs the show. "So far we've created a trajectory [of the slick] that was passed up the chain of command to the Coast Guard and eventually to the president showing where the oil might go," he tells the assembled team. BP's remote operated sub, he adds, "was unsuccessful in activating the blowout preventers, so we're gearing up right now."
An NOAA expert on oil disasters jumps in: "I think we need to be prepared for it to be the spill of the decade."
Written on a whiteboard at the front of the room is the government's initial, worst-case estimate of the size of the spill. While the figure is dramatically higher than any official estimate issued by BP or the government, it is in line with the high-end calculations by scientists who have monitored the spill.
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