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Obama Negotiates with Himself on Oil. Again. May 16, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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President Obama’s position on oil has been one of the most disappointing and incoherent facets of his administration to date.   On Saturday, this trend continued as the President announced a series of shifts to increase domestic oil production.

Pundits say he had to respond to high gas prices (which presidents do not control).  This maneuver is political capitulation in the face of a mismanaged narrative in the public discourse.  For years, this “debate” about gas prices has been dominated by flat out lies and misinformation in one of the more disgraceful displays of unaccountability in contemporary American politics. 

I have attempted to clear the air (pun intended) on this topic a number of times.  For a fuller explanation, please see this previous post.

Here’s the short version: conservatives claim that high gasoline prices are caused by liberal overregulation stifling domestic oil production.  That just isn’t the slightest bit true.  Oil is a global commodity, so its price is determined on the global market.  We, the United States, represent 25% of world oil demand and about 3% of world supply.  The point here is that we simply don’t have enough oil to affect global supply and thus prices.  And the kicker is that even if we could, OPEC is a cartel; they could/would effortlessly decrease their production to offset any impact we could have. 

Here’s another inconvenient truth: domestic oil production is already up 11% under Obama and was down 15% under Bush.  That reality doesn’t match this GOP argument.  Increased domestic drilling cannot lower gas prices.  Period.  Don’t take my word for it, read for yourself – even the mainstream media have finally caught on recently. 

Domestic oil production does not drive gas prices.

So back to Obama.  After failing to enact a single piece of oil-spill legislation, the President was finally starting to sound like a progressive on energy again.  In an earlier address he even pointed out the supply/demand reality I described above, although he inexplicably refused to take it to its logical conclusion that drilling cannot be a solution.  To now increase drilling as a response to gas prices validates the baldly fabricated GOP narrative.  Much like the current deficit focus, we’re conceding not only the point but adopting their frame as well.  No good can come of that.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

Recall that last year, right before the Congressional energy debate, the administration unveiled a plan to dramatically increase offshore drilling.  For which it asked nothing in return.  Rational negotiators might reward unilateral compromise.  A GOP party that miraculously resurrected itself by vociferously opposing any- and everything Obama does would of course do no such thing.  So we gave away a bargaining chip for free [that most progressives would have rather kept] and no energy bill was passed.  Also, this episode occurred just one month before the BP oil spill, which prevented the administration from using that catastrophe as a catalyst for needed change.

In both cases, the only rationale I can see is political maneuvering.  We know the Obama campaign prizes the supposedly undecided independents and what moderate Republicans still exist “in the middle.”  They think that carving out GOP territory for Obama will undercut Republican attacks.  But even if they pick up some independents, if they sell out progressives to do it that is not a net gain.  Additionally, the GOP won’t care that oil production is up – more than they want these policy objectives, they want to keep their base angry.  Have Obama’s oil moves blunted their attacks on this president as anti-oil or trickled into the Fox Newsiverse?  No. 

Obama’s tactics seem to operate from a flawed premise on bipartisanship about which I have previously written, and I am concerned about this plan.

Drill, baby, drill is political welfare for Big Oil, plain and simple.  It does not help America, it helps oil executives.  If we’re going to cave on offshore drilling, leverage it for a coherent energy policy.  If we’re going to increase domestic oil production, call it the compromise that it is and justify it as job creation (with a side of pollution and risk); don’t validate their lies.  I can stomach a certain amount of political compromise, but I can’t start defending the Fox News reality as truth.  

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BP’s Oil Spill Fines Might Not Help the Gulf December 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling.
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In addition to BP’s compensatory fund, the company must pay a per-barrel fine for its gratuitously spilled oil.  Under current law, that money is paid into the federal treasury instead of funding restoration efforts.

The Obama administration tapped former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to compile a report on how best to enact a long-term Gulf restoration plan.  One of the major recommendations in the Mabus Report was to pass a law directing funds from BP’s fines straight to Gulf restoration efforts.  Seems simple enough, but even obvious baby steps require prodding in this obstructionist legislative environment.

Read the full post at Change.org.

There is No Common Ground between Different Realities August 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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To call Republicans “the Party of No” is not quite fair – they say a lot of things besides ‘no.’ But that is the full extent of their political output: speech. Currently, Republicans are more accurately the Party of Rhetoric.

Now this is partly because they are in the legislative minority, but I can’t think of any other period in our history during which the minority party decided to so fully abstain from policymaking.  You can count on one hand the number of GOP senators willing to substantively work with the Democratic majority.  It makes you wonder what the rest of them are doing with their time.

In the past, when our country faced a problem, our two political parties fought about which policy was better to address it.  That is how our legislature is supposed to function.

You may have noticed that this occurs less today.  Increasingly, the political debate has devolved into an argument not of HOW to act but rather IF any action is even warranted.  Instead of debating solutions, we find ourselves arguing about whether or not a problem exists at all:

  • This is true of climate change: conservatives don’t have their own solution, they simply deny that the problem exists.
  • This is true of healthcare: how many times during the last year were we told that “America has the best healthcare in the world”?
  • This is true of any policy that involves regulation (finance, pollution, offshore drilling etc.), because a push for deregulation instead of better regulation contains the implicit assertion that no problems exist (or that regulations somehow cause what problems there are).

Republicans deny that these problems exist altogether, and that is problematic because they are quite real.

Historically, even policies supporting inaction were not based on denial.  Consider America’s now defunct isolationism.  Advocates of non-intervention did not dispute the existence of foreign wars, they simply determined that staying out of them was a better course of action.  At least everybody was still operating in the same reality – they debated the merits of different solutions.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert told President Bush that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”  So conservatives simply left.  Today, Republicans occupy their own reality.  They get their own news tailored to that reality, and anything that contradicts this fictitious worldview is simply denounced as biased, even empirical science.  No policy debate can occur because the conservative reality has its own facts and they distrust “ours.”  Experts are just elitists anyways.

But this planet and this country face real challenges, even if conservatives refuse to believe them.  Unfortunately, by the time they become full, immediate crises, it will be too late to act.  Think of America as riding in an SUV speeding towards a cliff: everyone in that car is in trouble – even the kid in the backseat with his eyes shut tight, plugging his ears and singing loudly to himself (presumably Mellencamp’s “[This Is] Our Country”).  But once the wheels leave the pavement, and likely well before then, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.  That kid is only forced to finally acknowledge the outside world upon impact.

So how we can bridge this inter-reality chasm?  It may not even be possible.  But there is one way we can try (and the Daily Show has been attempting this valiantly).

The Party of Rhetoric, especially now that it has started drinking Tea, has begun to make some wild claims.  Conservatives won’t listen to our words, so we must hope that they still believe theirs.

As Republican politicians increasingly resort to fear-mongering, they make ridiculous extrapolations and predict devastating futures that result from liberal policies.  So when these disasters do not occur, we must repeat their words back to them.

It will be a while before we can utilize this strategy for most issues, but we can start small with offshore drilling now.  Conservatives and the oil industry railed against the Obama administration for its perfectly justified temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling.  They insisted that this most minimal safeguard against another massive oil spill would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and more economic devastation than the BP spill itself.

As the New York Times reported this week, that simply has not happened.  Even the administration’s estimates were overly pessimistic (to a much lesser extent).  Instead of hundreds of thousands of laid off oil workers, unemployment claims attributable to the moratorium are currently just in the hundreds.

I’m sure that the conservative reality has an explanation for this development or simply rejects it altogether.  But if we can’t even look over our shoulder and agree about what just happened, how can we possibly look ahead and safely navigate the future?

Is the Underwater Oil Gone? August 25, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Conflicting reports claim that the giant underwater oil plume in the Gulf of Mexico is both still there and gone.  Yet a closer look at the recent research reveals a potential explanation for this apparent contradiction – and an important new species.

On August 4th, the White House released an official report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) detailing where the millions of barrels of BP’s spilled oil ended up.  Its conclusion that virtually none of the oil remains suspended in the water column generated some warranted skepticism and justified criticism, particularly in regard to transparency.  Part of the problem was that NOAA considered dispersed/dissolved oil harmless and “gone,” which is how researchers at the University of Georgia could soon after conclude that at least three quarters of the oil is still underwater.  Additional questions have been raised about the peer-review process with which the administration has attempted to fend off these attacks.

Last week, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute published their results from tests conducted in the Gulf on the underwater plume of dispersed oil.  According to their observations, the microbes dispersing the oil were acting very slowly and would likely take months to degrade the full plume.

So it was surprising when researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced this week that the oil plume has vanished.   Especially because they reported that the oil was gone because that extra oil had in fact drastically increased microbial oil decomposition.  But how could that be true?  Don’t these studies contradict each other?  As it turns out, not entirely.

It is well established that many types of aquatic microbes can digest oil and already inhabit areas near the thousands of natural oil seeps around the world.  In fact, when the spill first began, some experts were concerned that large amounts of spilled oil could result in a population explosion of a certain toxic species of oil-feeding bacteria that could cause a plague in the Gulf region (E&E News, subscription required).

These two studies both measured microbial activity but arrived at opposing conclusions.  So how can they both be correct?  Was there an orgy of oil-eating microbes or not?  That isn’t yet clear, but it is possible that neither study was wrong.

Bacteria near an oil droplet. Image from Science via Wired.com

It comes down to the methodology, how each study chose to measure microbial activity.  When microbes are exposed to a high concentration of the food they need, they go into metabolic overdrive,  eating and reproducing rapidly.  For these microbes, that food is oil, so an oil spill is a feast.  However, when “aerobic” microbes that use oxygen go into a feeding frenzy, their populations explode and rapidly use up the available oxygen in the water.  Eventually, that area can no longer support aerobic life, including those microbes.  (Side note: this lack of oxygen, called “hypoxia,” is what causes aquatic dead zones at the mouths of most major rivers because they are filled with fertilizer runoff from farms.)

As this excellent Wired.com article explains, the first study measured oxygen levels in the water to gauge microbial activity because if there had been a lot of aerobic oil-eating microbes, the water in the oil plume should contain less oxygen.

The second study used a different approach.  Instead of measuring oxygen levels, they extracted microbial DNA from their water samples and sequenced the genes to see what they do.  These researchers found “large proportions” (which I assume means a high concentration) of genes that create oil-degrading enzymes and, more importantly, discovered a new strain of oil-eating microbe.

This previously undiscovered species is important because it is “anaerobic” – it doesn’t consume oxygen.  It can break down oil without deoxygenating the water around it.  So in the context of that first study, you could consider this new microbe a “stealth” oil-eater; the method employed by first researchers could not have detected its presence.  Additionally, because its growth is not limited by the amount of oxygen in an area, this new species should be more effective and degrade oil more quickly than the aerobic microbes we already knew about.

But just because something is possible does not mean it happened.  Most scientists are wisely urging us not to jump to conclusions.  After all, the oil plume could have just drifted to a different location undetected.  Additional studies are necessary to verify that the oil is in fact gone.

The takeaway message here is that we have an imperfect understanding of underwater oil degradation.  That is part of the reason why BP used all those dispersants – not only did they keep oil-soaked beach/wildlife photos to a minimum, they kept most of the oil dispersed and underwater, where we do not know for sure how much is there or what damage it will cause in the decades to come.  It’s hard to sue a company for unknown damages.

So let’s take this study as some welcome good news, but keep our hopes in check until we can confirm these results.  And figure out how dangerous dispersed oil is.

Democratic Energy Agenda Outmaneuvered by Hypocritical Republicans August 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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In these difficult times for the mainstream media, many traditional outlets are shying away from calling out politicians for obvious contradictions.  Overzealous attempts to avoid accusations of media bias have muzzled the watchdogs that a healthy democracy requires.  In this political free-for-all, the Republican minority is dishonestly yet deftly outmaneuvering the reform agenda.  This is readily apparent in an examination of the oil spill response bill.

I actually pity Sen. Reid right now.  He has an impossible task.  Look at how this mess played out:

The oil spill presented a rare political opportunity to advance the long obstructed climate agenda.  Despite a successful bill in the House, it was clear the Senate was not ready for a similar plan.  So Reid dropped the climate initiatives and pushed an energy bill.

In order to attract even a single Republican vote, the more ambitious and indeed necessary energy solutions were stripped.  As time went on, it became difficult to even call it an “energy” bill.

Still, Republicans and their industry allies demanded that the oil spill response bill contain only provisions pertaining directly to oil spills (a short-sighted strategy that treats symptoms instead of the disease).  Without a supermajority, Reid was forced to remove all but the most uncontroversial energy provisions.

The only remaining contentious item in the bill is the oil spill liability cap.  Democrats want to make oil companies actually pay for the damage they cause.  Republicans are protecting the liability cap on behalf of smaller members of the oil industry.  This should have been a slam dunk.   So what happened?

It is no secret that the larger Democratic tent includes some oil state senators who protect Big Oil, not unlike their Republican colleagues.  One would like to believe, however, that these senators, such as Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK), want to help their party advance the minor energy reforms in this bill and prevent future spills.  Indeed, these two senators are now crafting a liability compromise to remove that roadblock.

In order to strike while the iron was still at least warm, Sen. Reid tried to push the bill through before the August recess.  So Senate Republicans shrewdly prevented Democrats from negotiating, even among themselves.

Republican staffers made it clear that if the bill were opened to amendments, they would hijack the debate and use the opportunity to file divisive, partisan amendments, purely to score political points and drag out the process.  They said their amendments would attack the broader Democratic energy agenda, including cap-and-trade and the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

This is blatant hypocrisy.  After insisting that Sen. Reid’s bill focus narrowly on oil spills, Republicans threatened to derail the oil spill response bill by injecting broader energy issues.  But did the mainstream media call them out for this political duplicity?  No.

Knowing that Republicans would surely back up their amendment threats, Reid was forced to advance the bill without accepting amendments, a process known as “filling the tree.”

Because Reid wasn’t accepting amendments, Republicans attacked Democrats for shoving through another “partisan” bill without accepting any minority input – a lie, because many of the bill’s provisions were actually coauthored by Republicans!  Additionally, the necessary parliamentary maneuver angered centrist Democrats*.

Democrats lost this round decisively.  Republicans hit the bill from all sides.  To me, it called to mind an image of Sen. Reid as a little boy, trapped in a circle of Republican bullies shoving him back and forth between them.

With the compromise in the works, this bill may pass after the recess.  But without media referees, the reform agenda will continue to struggle.

*To be fair, there was concern that more conservative Democrats, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), might also take advantage of the amendment opportunity to limit EPA authority on greenhouse gases.

Those who do not learn from oil spills… August 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Last week, the Senate failed to pass even an anemic oil spill response bill.  The oil industry learned a lesson from this episode, and it’s not the lesson we’d hoped to teach them.

The bill that was pulled contained commonsense measures to prevent oil spills.  Simple ideas like making oil companies fully liable for the damage they cause.  “You break, you buy” is not a tough concept, and the oil industry has zero goodwill with the public right now.  This should have been simple.

Yet for all of BP’s technical incompetence and possibly criminal negligence, they have thus far succeeded in minimizing the regulatory blowback from this terrible, preventable catastrophe.  Their formula is simple:

1)     Lie to downplay the spill size;

2)     Deny media access so that nobody can disprove the lie;

3)     Spend a tiny fraction of profits on lobbying; and, inevitably,

4)     …Repeat

We know that BP has consistently downplayed the size of the spill.  They used dispersants to keep oil underwater and then chose to measure the spill rate solely by the size of the surface oil slick.  That’s willful deception.

Yet because BP withheld video footage and denied reporters access, nobody could authoritatively challenge their claims (except maybe the government, but that’s another story).

And finally, over the last few months, the big five oil companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell) have spent $18 million lobbying to kill the oil spill response bill.  Compared to their $21.7 billion in combined profits over the last quarter alone, that is a tiny investment.

And it worked.

Surely this legislative gridlock is influenced by the toxic political climate in Washington, but the industry has taken note of BP’s success.  In fact, we have already seen tactics from this new playbook employed elsewhere.  (Which means, unfortunately, that we have already had more oil spills since Deepwater Horizon…we didn’t pass this oil legislation how?)

In Michigan, there are numerous reports that Enbridge Inc. is denying media access to areas damaged by its recent oil spill.  In China, the amount of oil spilled when a pipeline exploded is suspected of being massively downplayed.  This pattern is not going to stop on its own.

Oily shoreline in Dalian, China, where BP's spill response tactics are already being replicated.

During future oil spills, what incentive does a company have to be honest or transparent about the damage it is causing?  None.

Not only have we failed to hold the oil industry accountable for unacceptable damage and deplorable safety records, we have taught them how to get away with it even when, for a few weeks, the whole country actually cares about the environment.

The oil industry has not learned from its mistakes.  Why should they?  It’s much cheaper to pay for lobbyists.  With limited liability, taxpayers and victims pay for much of the damage oil spills cause.

Case-in-point: despite the looming phase-out of single-hulled tankers like the Exxon Valdez, Exxon still hires more of these risky supertankers than the next 10 biggest oil companies combined.

Failing to pass this weak bill will be even worse than having done nothing.  It will let Big Oil know they can bully and buy their way out of any transgression, no matter how heinous.   Those who do not learn from their oil spills are doomed to repeat them.

And right on cue comes news that in Alaska, just thirty miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, BP is gaming the system to loosen restrictions and oversight on a new drilling project…

Republicans Block Anemic Energy Bill for Oil Industry July 28, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Despite the weakness of the pending oil spill/“energy” bills introduced in the House and Senate this week, Big Oil and their Congressional allies are doing everything they can to make sure we do not learn from BP’s unforgiveable mistakes.

100 days after the Deepwater Horizon spill began, Republicans oppose each of the small shuffles down the right path that these bills contain.

For example, anti-science champion Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) takes exception with a provision that requires natural gas drillers to merely disclose which toxic chemicals they are injecting into the ground near our drinking water supplies during the controversial practice known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”

Why does Inhofe oppose the simple disclosure of that information?  Because Inhofe and the industry claim that the dangers of toxic chemicals in drinking water are overblown.

Comprehensive energy reform is already dead, and even these bills, which could only euphemistically be called “half-hearted”, have a slim chance because Republicans claim that there is little room for compromise. That is a disgusting claim.  These bills are already grotesquely compromised.  They were so thoroughly watered down in hopes of attracting the necessary supermajority that they are scarcely progress at all.  To demand more compromise calls to mind a limbo player lying on the floor.

Republicans most vehemently oppose lifting the liability cap on oil companies that defile our nation’s environment.  They say that expecting oil companies to pay for the full consequences of the damage they cause will drive “mom and pop” oil companies out of business.  That is hardly a defense of limited liability: if that claim is true, perhaps mom and pop should pursue less risky projects.

Republicans are fighting to preserve the apparent right of every oil company, big or small, to remain blameless for the oil spills they continue to cause in American waters. That is senseless.

With midterm elections approaching, Republicans are pretending to have solutions of their own; toward that end, they are circulating an even bigger joke of an energy bill.  Their “alternative” bill contains energy “solutions” such as lifting the deepwater drilling moratorium and preventing the administration from blocking offshore drilling again. You know, the change we need.

However, the Republican bill does contain a provision that unfortunately may influence the Democratic bills.  Instead of unlimited liability for oil companies that cause spills (making them pay for all the damage they cause), Republicans have a different idea: ironically, the party of limited government wants to make the Department of the Interior set liability limits on each individual rig based on 13 different criteria, including a company’s safety record and the estimated risks involved with the specific location.

This is just another way to protect Big Oil and make sure that taxpayers are the ones who have to pay to clean up oil spills. Oil state Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) are attempting to broker a compromise on oil spill liability.

There is one additional point that must be mentioned.  Many Republicans are trotting out this line in various forms:

“This is a serious subject and it deserves consideration by the United States Senate on behalf of the American people.  We are ready for a serious debate, but it appears the Majority Leader is not.” –Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

This complaint is not just about the bill’s expedited timeline.  It is true that Sen. Reid is trying to have an energy bill passed by the August recess.  Yet perhaps more importantly, Sen. Reid is unlikely to allow any amendments to be added to this bill.

Such a parliamentary maneuver is necessary because Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is poised with his amendment to delay the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act; the final regulatory bulwark of climate action in the United States.

Rockefeller’s amendment, about which I will write more soon, is similar to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) “Dirty Air Act” amendment that was narrowly defeated in June.  If amendments were allowed, she too would certainly poison this bill with something similar.  Indeed, Murkowski is considering adding the amendment to an unrelated small-business bill as she tirelessly does the bidding of Big Oil in the U.S. Senate.

“Energy” Bills Drop and Big Oil Plays Doctor July 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Early this week, the House and Senate unveiled their minimalist energy bills.

Far from the comprehensive energy reform our country desperately needs, these bills are largely just a direct response to the oil spill (an approach with which I strongly disagree).

Both bills are amalgamations of other, smaller oil spill/energy bills that have already passed out of their various committees.  The House and Senate bills differ slightly (which was bound to happen even if the House bill wasn’t 238 pages compared to the Senate bill’s 16), but here’s a summary of the Senate bill’s provisions:

  • Lift the $75 million oil spill liability cap (retroactively, to apply to BP)
  • Increase the per-barrel tax on oil producers that feeds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund
  • Restructure the Department of the Interior to remove conflicts of interest and increase drilling oversight
  • Lopsidedly incentivize electric and natural gas vehicles ($6 billion for natural gas, $400 million for electrification)
  • Finally enact the HomeStar home retrofit program

A full 24-page “draft” summary is available here but subject to change, especially as this bill is likely to move quickly ahead of the looming August recess.  Debate on this bill is scheduled for Friday.

TNR’s Bradford Plumer described the scope of this Senate legislation:

“All told, it’s a tiny bill—the total cost comes to around $15 billion. And it won’t do all that much for the environment: When one reporter asked committee staffers whether anyone knew how much greenhouse-gas reduction this bill would lead to, several people laughed out loud.”

Notably absent from this energy bill (aside from comprehensive energy policy) is a Renewable Energy Standard (RES): a requirement that America generate a certain amount of its electricity from renewable sources by a given date.

Could an RES pass right now?   Renewable energy advocates and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle insist that they have 60+ votes for the popular, no-brainer policy.  Curiously, Sen. Reid says he doesn’t have the votes.  Someone is misinformed or lying.

Daschle, pictured above, and Reid disagree about whether the votes are there for an RES. Obviously, politicians are quite capable of the seemingly impossible feat of arguing about whether a given number is above or below 60, but Daschle doesn't really have a reason to lie; Reid could be saving the RES as a strong foundation for a subsequent, real energy bill, but he has not given any such explanation.

Both the House and Senate versions are weak as an energy bill, but the House bill does contain some additional commonsense solutions to protect America from the intrinsic risks of offshore drilling.

For example, the House bill would block oil companies with a “significant history” of violating worker safety of environmental laws from drilling in federal waters.  The legislative language, which already passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee, defines that “significant history” as a company having at least one of the following:

  • 5x the industry average for willful or repeat worker safety violations at its facilities;
  • More than 10 deaths at any facility; or
  • $10 million in fines under EPA laws within the preceding seven years.

The package includes further safety provisions that the Natural Resources panel approved unanimously, including new standards for blowout preventers.

It is worth noting that even in the comparatively more aggressive House bill, drilling regulations that were not direct responses to the oil spill were dropped.

So, what does the oil industry have to say about these moderate safety regulations?

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the oil industry’s main trade association.  And they oppose almost all of these regulations, of course.  As far as Big Oil is concerned nothing needs to change.

In a call with reporters, API president Jack Gerard took particular umbrage at the blowout preventer regulations.  In his eyes, new blowout preventer regulations are premature because we don’t even know what caused the Gulf spill:

“We’re going into surgery without a diagnosis.  This is the ultimate in malpractice.” –Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

Granted, I have never been pleased by anything these API lobbyists have said, but this is a remarkably bold statement.  We know fully well that current blowout preventer regulations and practices are not up to the job.

Hypocrisy is a familiar sight in Washington.  In the past, however, you usually had to wait until after an election before side-by-side comparisons of a single person arguing against himself began to show up a la the Daily Show.  But not anymore.

Just a few weeks ago, API spokesperson Bill Bush fought against the deepwater drilling moratorium because:

“The 33 now idle deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf have passed thorough government inspections and are ready to be put back to work.”

Let’s continue the API’s medical metaphor: We can’t operate on (regulate) the deepwater rigs because we don’t know for sure what ails them.  But somehow, at the same time, we can pronounce them healthy and let them keep on drilling?  That does not compute.

API’s Gerard went on:

“We believe what comes out of the discussions on the oil spill should be directly related to the oil spill.”

That makes sense.  The patient was admitted only because of his inability to keep his oil down – why set his broken bones or cure any additional diseases you find during his checkup?

And remember, as I said before, needed but less directly spill-related drilling regulations have already been dropped from these bills in accordance with this oil industry demand.  Such is the price of attempting to overcome Republican obstructionism.

A brief New York Times article detailing the roll out of these bills summarized the likely resistance:

“The oil industry is expected to offer stiff opposition to some of the provisions…”

Maybe I’m reading into it too far, but this quote really irks me (because of the content, not the writing):

The oil industry screwed up, big time.  The damage to the Gulf of Mexico and its dependent economies is catastrophic.  In direct response, Congress is attempting to pass an anemic bill with long overdue and watered down regulations.

The ONLY opposition to this bill is from the very industry that screwed up in the first place and has long enjoyed a political free ride.

Are we really going to let them singlehandedly push back against the regulations they’ve so vividly demonstrated they require?  That’s like losing the bedtime argument with your young child.  This is pathetic.

Deepwater Drilling Moratorium Version 2.0 July 14, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Last month, as most of you know, the Obama administration’s first deepwater drilling moratorium in response to the ongoing BP oil spill was overturned in a logically unsound and ostensibly political decision by U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman.

This week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a second moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico through November 30th.  It is designed to address the “concerns” raised by Judge Feldman (download here).

I have said this before, but it must be repeated in any discussion of a deepwater drilling moratorium:

-Fact: We do not yet know what caused the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

-Fact: We do not have adequate prevention or containment methods for a deepwater blowout, so a massive oil spill is guaranteed if a blowout occurs.

-Fact: A massive oil spill is unacceptably destructive.

-Conclusion: Deepwater drilling must be halted AT LEAST until we know how to prevent and/or recover from deepwater blowouts.

This, in and of itself, ought to sufficiently justify a moratorium.  However, without addressing this issue, Judge Feldman somehow found the following items troubling enough to take the extreme measure of overturning the moratorium:

The original moratorium alluded to but did not explicitly describe the devastation caused by deepwater blowouts.  Judge Feldman did not think the moratorium followed logically from the 30-day safety report on which it was based.

The original moratorium covered oil rigs drilling in more than 500 feet of water.  Judge Feldman felt this depth-based cutoff was arbitrary (it’s not – in Feldman’s own words, it is “undisputed” that to drill beneath that depth, floating rigs are required to conduct the more dangerous, deepwater drilling).

The oil industry has also cited a bogus job-loss argument that I refuted in my original defense of such a drilling moratorium.  Yes, temporarily halting drilling does temporary reduce the number of drilling jobs available.  But when one considers the job loss beyond the oil industry as a result of oil spills (in nature-driven sectors such as fishing and tourism), it is clear that oil spills destroy far more jobs than a temporary halt in drilling.

This new moratorium addresses Judge Feldman’s stated concerns.

First, it essentially makes the case I have made above: it cites the oil industry’s inability to identify the cause of and thus prevent another blowout of this type.  It catalogues the utter inadequacy of every oil company’s cleanup and containment procedures in the event of a deepwater blowout.  It spells out what the rest of us already know.

Second, it removes the depth-based determination of which wells must halt their drilling.  Instead, this moratorium applies only to oil rigs “using subsea blowout preventers (BOPs) or surface BOPs on a floating facility” regardless of depth.

In regard to the scope of the moratorium, this different language appears mainly to address Feldman’s flimsy yet prohibitive criticisms of the original moratorium; it seems that the moratorium will still apply to the same 30 or so deepwater rigs currently in the Gulf.

It is true that BP was operating its rigs more recklessly than others in the oil industry.  Interestingly enough, one oil industry group (that usually spends its resources on important things like funding climate denial) has turned its guns inward on BP as the rest of the industry tries to distance itself from BP.  They released the graphic below detailing BP’s shortcomings:

BP was extra reckless with the Deepwater Horizon well, but deepwater drilling has intrinsic risks that cannot be fully negated. Click for larger.

But even the oil industry conceded during Congressional testimony that the risks of deepwater drilling cannot be avoided:

“When these things happen, we are not very well equipped to deal with them, and that’s why the emphasis is always on preventing these things from occurring.” -Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson

For the first time in my life, I agree with Rex; that, in one sentence, explains why the drilling moratorium is in place.

Some members of the presidential commission investigating the oil spill have concerns about the economic impacts of the moratorium and have changed their minds to oppose it.  However, until I hear a response to the three facts and conclusion laid out at the beginning of this post, I will support a moratorium.

Commission co-chairman Bob Graham compared the situation to Boeing’s treatment of its fleet when a defect was discovered in the cockpit glass of 1,200 planes. “They didn’t wait until all 1,200 had been examined to release the first one,” he said.  He feels that because there are only 36 or so rigs in question, we should simply be able to inspect each one, and allow them to continue drilling if and as soon as they pass inspection.

This is not an analogous situation.  The Boeing technicians knew what they were looking for; we don’t. Until you have diagnosed a problem, you cannot fix it.  An inconclusive doctor’s visit does not ipso facto cure an undiagnosed disease.

Until we know what happened, a drilling moratorium is the right move.  That’s why the European Union’s top energy minister has called for a similar moratorium on deepwater drilling as well – pending the results of an investigation of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

We cannot skimp on safety precautions just because the oil industry has a stranglehold on the Gulf economy.  Whatever economic losses may accompany a halt in drilling are still BP’s fault.  If BP is compensating fishermen who not work as a result of their recklessness, they should be compensating their own employees who cannot work because of their recklessness.

The oil industry is using its drilling jobs as leverage to threaten us into prematurely lifting our moratorium.  It is perverse to cave to their demands before we have even stopped this ongoing catastrophe.

Check out this post at Grist that gives some scale to the cleanup effort.

Deeply Flawed Ruling Overturns Deepwater Drilling Moratorium June 24, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

***UPDATE: Rachel Maddow has reported more information about Judge Feldman’s oil-related investments here.***

On Tuesday, Judge Martin Feldman granted a preliminary injunction brought by the oil industry against the Obama Administration’s 6-month moratorium on floating offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  That ruling lifts the drilling ban.

First of all, it is significant that Judge Feldman has reported extensive investments in the oil industry including both Halliburton and Transocean. Shockingly enough, his ruling does not read like it was penned by an impartial arbiter.  He uses phrases like “the government admits that the industry provides relatively high paying jobs” (p. 5-6).  Like that has anything to do with the safety of offshore drilling.

In describing the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Feldman even uses the exact same analogy trotted out by conservative pundits; “Are all airplanes a danger because one was?” (p. 19).  He also adds a few more analogies, including my personal favorite: “[Are] all tankers like Exxon Valdez?” (p. 19).  YES, FELDMAN, ALL THE SINGLE-HULLED TANKERS IN THE WORLD ARE JUST LIKE EXXON VALDEZ.  That’s why we’ve switched [embarrassingly slowly] to using double-hulled tankers!

Judge Martin Feldman. One of the 37 out of 64 active or senior judges in key Gulf Coast districts that have ties to the oil and gas industries.

Having read Feldman’s 22-page ruling, I am less than compelled by his arguments.

As I explained in my earlier defense of the moratorium, the logic for temporarily suspending deepwater drilling operations is very clear:

-Fact: We do not yet know what caused the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

-Fact: We do not have adequate prevention or containment methods for a deepwater blowout, so a massive oil spill is guaranteed if a blowout occurs.

-Fact: A massive oil spill is unacceptably destructive.

-Conclusion: Deepwater drilling must be halted AT LEAST until we know how to prevent and/or recover from deepwater blowouts.

Nobody has presented a counterargument to this logic.  This ruling does not contain one.  I don’t believe that one exists.

The oil industry and indeed Judge Feldman argue that the moratorium is a punitive action against innocent oil workers and that it would cause excessive job loss.  This is false.   Judge Feldman writes:

“Oil and gas production is quite simply elemental to Gulf communities” (p. 6).

As nice as that non sequitur would look on an oil billboard, all that says is that these communities need to diversify.

Employment has nothing to do with the justification for this moratorium. Even if it did, I have shown that blowouts such as this cause far more job loss in sustainable industries such as fishing and tourism than the moratorium would temporarily cost the drilling industry.

I find further faults in Judge Feldman’s ruling.

From a legal perspective, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act instructs the Secretary of the Interior to prescribe regulations,

“for the suspension or temporary prohibition of any operation or activity, including production…if there is a threat of serious, irreparable, or immediate harm or damage to life (including fish and other aquatic life), to property, to any mineral deposits (in areas leased or not leased), or to the marine, coastal, or human environment.” (p. 7-8).

This oil spill meets EVERY ONE of these conditions, ANY ONE of which justifies a moratorium.

Now, that same piece of legislation also preserves the right of any person “having a valid legal interest which is or may be adversely affected” by such regulations to sue to stop them (p. 8).  But those adversely affected workers do not make our oil rigs any safer or in any way reduce the threat that validates the moratorium.  If they have suffered financial burdens, make BP and friends compensate them.  Case closed.

The Administrative Procedure Act cautions that an agency action may only be overturned if it is “arbitrary” and “capricious”.  Lo and behold, Judge Feldman found this moratorium both arbitrary and capricious.

This moratorium is anything but arbitrary and whimsically impulsive.

Feldman contends that the government did not examine alternatives to the moratorium.  But until we know what caused the spill, there is no other effective preventative measure than not drilling (aside from blindly hoping it doesn’t happen again before we figure out what happened, but that’s not what I consider “effective”).

Feldman explains his ruling with the contention that the MMS report outlining the proposed drilling reforms “makes no effort to explicitly justify the moratorium: it does not discuss any irreparable harm that would warrant a suspension of operations” (p. 4).  Seriously Feldman?  Are you joking?  Have you read the news in the last two months?  You live in Louisiana for crying out loud.  Oh! I know, check the performance of your oil stocks.  Notice anything different?  Ya, something big happened.  It has consequences.

Feldman goes on to condescendingly demonstrate Secretary Salazar’s “pattern” of implying the catastrophic effects of deepwater drilling without explicitly stating them.

Instead of explaining the most convincingly implied point I have ever come across, I will take this moment to explicitly proclaim Judge Bubby Boy either decidedly dim or of integrity as oily and compromised as a deepwater blowout preventer.  Take your pick.

The points of contention continue.

Feldman repeatedly refers to the Administration’s “blanket” moratorium on offshore drilling.  If you’ve been following the oil spill, you may recall an earlier “mini-scandal” when the moratorium was announced: Secretary Salazar assembled a panel of experts to review the proposed safety reforms.  Those experts approved  – among many other reforms – a six-month moratorium on exploratory wells deeper than 1000 feet.  The final report proposed a six-month moratorium on exploratory wells deeper than 500 feet.  Everyone freaked out about DOI’s “blatant misrepresentation” of the experts’ recommendations (of which the moratorium was a small fraction).

Now, aside from sounding so far from impartial as to seem personally offended by these events, Judge Feldman wrote:

“[Eight of the experts] have publicly stated that they “do not agree with the six month blanket moratorium” on floating drilling.  They envisioned a more limited kind of moratorium, but a blanket moratorium was added after their final review, they complain, and was never agreed to by them.  A factor that might cause some apprehension about the probity of the process that led to the Report.” (p. 3)

First off all, that last sentence sounds like the script for a Fox News anchor.  My complaint here is for those experts that oppose the moratorium as well: just what kind of moratorium would you propose?  500 feet is the switchpoint between rigs that rest on the ocean floor and floating rigs.  That is, in Judge Feldman’s own words, “undisputed” (p. 18).

The oil industry (in this case, including Judge Feldman) isn’t angry that the Department of the Interior changed the moratorium depth by 500 feet.  They’re angry that it was implemented at all.  People talk about this “blanket moratorium” as if Obama tried to stop all offshore drilling.  In fact, he attempted to do nothing of the sort.

Feldman writes that he “is unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium” (p. 17).  Recurring oil spill delusion aside, “immense scope?”  Let’s look at what we’re talking about here.

The term “blanket” moratorium by itself is misleading.  The moratorium applied only to floating oil rigs drilling exploratory wells in depths deeper than 500 ft.  Existing production at those depths continued unaffected.  Shallower offshore drilling (the vast majority of offshore drilling) was unaffected.  The moratorium only applied to 33 oil rigs out of the ~4500 currently drilling in the Gulf!

How much more limited could the moratorium get? Should it only apply to deepwater wells owned by BP?  Only deepwater wells cemented by Halliburton? Only deepwater wells operated by Transocean rigs?  How about only those deepwater rigs that are about to explode and sink?

WE DON’T KNOW WHAT CAUSED THE BLOWOUT; how could we possibly refine the moratorium further? “Immense scale?”  This is the loosest-weave “blanket” moratorium in history.

Judge Feldman himself wrote that, “It is well settled that “preliminary injunction is an extraordinary that should not be granted unless the party seeking it has clearly carried the burden of persuasion” (p. 13).  That has not happened.  Yet Judge Feldman today rejected the government’s appeal to his Tuesday ruling. In doing so, he refused to delay his lifting of the drilling moratorium.    Why? For “the same reasons” given in his prior ruling. God bless America.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.