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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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Drill Baby Drill Crowd Eyes Alaska Refuge…Again February 3, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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New post at the new and improved Change.org:

It’s one of those immutable laws of American politics: When oil prices go up, lawmakers inevitably try to get their hands on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Ans as oil prices rise inexorably back near $100 per barrel, Big Oil’s favorite senator, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), is at it again.

Year after year, we have to defend this unparalleled wilderness sanctuary and vital calving ground for the Porcupine caribou from Big Oil’s hired guns in Congress.  It’s time to protect this iconic treasure once and for all.

The Alaska Wilderness League is leading the charge to have the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge designated as a National Monument. Sign their petition here and join more than 32,000 other Change.org activists to tell President Obama to finally secure this natural legacy from special interest exploitation—right now, the petition is just shy of the 35,000 signature benchmark.

Read the full post here.

The Keystone XL Pipeline Messes with Texas January 29, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Tar Sands.
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New post at Change.org:

Concerned neighbors who might otherwise be Tea Party activists are becoming eco-activists, organizing their neighbors, distributing flyers, and holding meetings with environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.  Environmental organizers have been surprised by their reception in East Texas, where local support has blossomed from unexpected meeting attendance to letter-writing campaigns and community resistance councils.

Rural Texas does not normally ally itself with the Sierra Club, so what sets this pipeline apart from those that already snake across the Lone Star State? It is the heavy-handed tactics TransCanada is employing to blaze its oily trail through America. And especially in Texas, such strong-arming from a Canadian company—with major Chinese investors—feels a lot like foreign aggression.

Read the full post and sign a petition to stop the project here.

Canadian Tar Sands Threaten America’s Water Supply October 21, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Politics.
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New post at Change.org:

What if I told you there was an alternative to offshore oil? Don’t get too excited, it’s still oil. What’s more, it’s an alternative that releases three to five times the greenhouse gas emissions and also contaminates up to five barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, all with the added ecosystem devastation of mountaintop removal mining. Enticed yet? Well, meet tar sands.

The planned Keystone XL pipeline will bisect our nation as it pumps pressurized oil 2000 miles from Alberta to Texas. The Great Plains may not be densely populated or a biodiversity hotspot, but it is America’s breadbasket. An oil spill beneath this proposed pipeline could have devastating consequences. The Midwest is home to the Ogallala aquifer, one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the world. It sprawls over 174,000 square miles beneath most of Nebraska and eight different Great Plains states. It provides 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation water and 82 percent of the drinking water consumed by those who live above it.

Were oil to spill from the Keystone XL pipeline, it could migrate into and contaminate this vital water source. And it’s not as if pipeline leaks are unheard of: just this year, within the United States, we’ve already had leaks in MichiganIllinois, and Alaska.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she’s about ready to approve the project.  Read the full post here and sign a petition to stop it here.

 

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…

“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.

Oil Spill Legislation Pt. 2 June 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Now that I have devoted two recent posts to what Congress isn’t doing, it’s time once again to look at what little they actually are working on.  There are a couple of interesting pieces of oil spill legislation that have been introduced recently.  These are the most noteworthy:

Let’s start with the bad ones.

S. 3461, introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/9.  This bill would create a system for resolving claims against BP, which is fine.  But it also seeks to renegotiate BP’s lease on “Mississippi Canyon 252” (where Deepwater Horizon was drilling when it sank).

Lease renegotiation is the Republicans’ preferred vehicle to increase BP’s liability. It has two main problems:

1) It requires BP’s cooperation. In order for this to work, BP would have to say, “Ok, we admit unlimited liability.”  As TPM reported, BP could refuse or even simply walk away from the renegotiation talks.  Public pressure might prevent them from doing this, but there is no guarantee.  And certainly no good reasons to choose this over just lifting the liability cap, which takes us to the second point.

2) Lease renegotiation establishes no future precedent for oil spills.  It is the legislative embodiment of not learning from our mistakes.  If we pass this bill and no other, the $75 million liability cap will still be on the books when the next catastrophic oil spill occurs.  This is why the only cosponsor on this bill is oil industry lackey Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).  Her co-sponsorship indicates that this bill is supported by the oil industry, which in turn indicates that this bill is far too weak.

Also, it could violate the Constitution.

S. 3497, introduced by Scott Brown (R-MA) on 6/16.  This bill would “require leases under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to include a plan that describes the means and timeline for containment and termination of an ongoing discharge of oil.”  The actual legislative text is not available yet, so I don’t know exactly what this bill would require, but that this seems weak to me.  Oil companies saying “and it’ll take us 4 months to fix this thing if it blows” would seem to satisfy the requirements of this bill, nor does this appear to address the strength and efficacy of the oil company plans – is there anything in here to prevent them from submitting plans to protect walruses in the Gulf of Mexico again?

Scott Brown has offered no evidence that his is to be trusted on energy/environmental issues.  That being said, he has found a bipartisan cosponsor for this bill in Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), so we will have to wait and see what is actually in this bill.

Now, the good stuff:

S. 3514: Amends the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit anyone from buying an oil or gas lease unless they pay into an Oil Spill Recovery Fund (unspecified amount so far) or post a bond equal to half of their outstanding liability related to oil spills or cleanups.  If the payment into the recovery fund is low, then what appears to be the intent of the bill – prevent companies in BP’s current situation from expanding their operations before paying up for oil spills – may be undercut.  But the legislative language is not available yet, so we’ll see.  Introduced by Mark Begich (D-AK) on 6/21 with 2 cosponsors.

S. 3492: In light of negligent emergency planning and the failure of all other containment options, this bill would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to require leaseholders to prepare for and actually drill at least one relief well concurrent to the drilling of any exploratory well in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).  The bill allows for “alternative measures” at least as effective as a relief well to be employed instead of a relief well as authorized by the Secretary of the Interior.  Probably unlikely to pass, but an interesting idea. Introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on 6/15 with no cosponsors yet.

H.R. 5513: “Spilled Oil Royalty Collection Act.”  Oil companies pay royalties on each barrel of oil produced.  In the “unforeseeable” event of a deepwater oil spill (defined as depth > 200m), this bill would charge oil companies royalties of at least 12.5% on every barrel that comes out of the well, regardless of whether that oil is recovered, burned, “dispersed”…anything.  This bill would come into effect retroactively, right before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  Were this to become law, it would further highlight the importance of accurate flow estimates for gushers.  Those royalties would certainly not offer much more deterrent than legal liability, but can you think of any reason that spilled oil should be exempted from royalties?  I can’t.  Especially because they are recovering and selling some of it.  Introduced by Chellie Pingree (D-ME) on 6/10 and has 2 cosponsors.

H.R. 5503: Amends the 90-year-old “Death on the High Seas Act” to make it easier for those such as the families of the 11 workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion to sue for non-pecuniary losses such as pain and suffering.  The bill was introduced with a statement that read, “We should not allow reckless corporations to use 19th century laws to shortchange their victims.”  Sounds right to me.  Introduced by John Conyers (D-MI) on 6/11 and has 12 cosponsors.

The companion bill in the Senate (S. 3463) was introduced by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) first, on 6/8, and has 5 cosponsors.

S. 3478: Would repeal parts of the Limitations of Liability Act of 1851, which Transocean has invoked to attempt to cap its liability at about $27 million.  This bill wins my personal award for Most Forced Acronym as its name is the “RESTORE Act,” which is supposed to stand for “Remuneration for Ecological and Societal Tolls Occasioned by Reckless Errors.”  Introduced by Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on 6/10 and has 3 cosponsors.

Bills to raise the liability cap:

S. 3472: “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Unlimited Liability Act.”  Completely lifts the standing $75 million liability cap for oil spills.  Introduced by Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on 6/9 and has 24 cosponsors.

H.R. 5520: Requires BP to pay at least $25 billion to a fund like the escrow the White House negotiated, but goes further by excluding this spill from the liability cap.  Introduced by Steve Kagen (D-WI) on 6/14 and has 32 cosponsors.

Bills to lift the deepwater drilling moratorium, which I fully support and have defended at length.

Senate:

S.3489: Introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/15 and has 1 cosponsor.

House:

H.R. 5499: Introduced John Mica (R-FL) on 6/11 and has 13 cosponsors.

H.R. 5525: Introduced by Pete Olson (R-TX) on 6/15 and has 28 cosponsors.

H.R. 5519: Introduced by Bill Cassidy (R-LA) on 6/14 and has 43 cosponsors, including some notable Gulf Democrats such as Charlie Melancon (D-LA).  Apparently Bill is more popular than John and Pete.

Sanders Amendment Defeated

Also worth mentioning but filed again under what Congress isn’t doing: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced an amendment to cut $35 billion in oil and gas royalties that don’t even add anything to the industry and would instead use $25 billion to reduce the deficit and $10 billion to encourage energy-efficient buildings.  The amendment was first blocked by climate-denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-KY) and then defeated in a vote, 61-39.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

An Appropriately Politicized Oil Spill June 16, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Republicans are accusing President Obama of politicizing this oil spill.  They say that he is unfairly pushing his energy agenda instead of solving this Gulf Coast tragedy.  They are wrong.

Obama recently addressed the nation about the oil spill in a speech from the Oval Office.  Even before he gave that speech, Republicans offered a preemptive rebuttal. House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) released a statement entitled:

“President Obama Should Not Use Oil Spill Crisis To Push for Job-Killing Nat’l Energy Tax”

Mike Pence (R-IN) explained it from another angle:

“The American People Don’t Want This Administration to Exploit the Crisis in the Gulf to Advance Their Disastrous Energy Policies”

First of all, both of those titles and the press releases themselves are loaded with politicized spin and focus group-tested buzzwords.  Way to depoliticize the oil spill, Republicans!  Leading by example, as usual.

Secondly, I would ask Mr. Pence to look at the Gulf and tell me whose energy policies are really disastrous – Republicans’ or Democrats’?

Republican criticisms miss their mark because the ongoing oil spill is intimately tied to energy reform. It makes both political and logical sense to connect the two.  Even factors you might think are separate are closely related.

For example, retrofitting 75,000 houses would save as much energy – each year – as has spilled into the Gulf since the spill began (maybe a bit less, I don’t know what estimate this calculation used).  And the home efficiency legislation (“Home Star”) that recently passed in the House is expected to retrofit 3.3 million homes.  If our cars were electric instead of gas-powered, those energy savings could replace our gas usage and we wouldn’t even have needed the oil that is now gushing into the Gulf.

Republicans are complaining because right now because the American public is actually demanding change, and that conflicts with the Republican status quo agenda (see stats in final paragraph).

Those who charge Obama with exploiting this disaster for pure political gain are misrepresenting the situation.  Political exploitation would involve only a tangential, non-casual relationship between the initiating disaster and the proposed response – in other words, if the proposed policy did not actually address the event or prevent it from happening again.

For example, political exploitation would be an appropriate accusation if a president attempted to ban wind power after a hurricane or tornado.  The connection is tenuous and the solution doesn’t prevent the problem.  That is not what’s happening here.

People keep drawing parallels between Hurricane Katrina and this oil spill, but there is a fundamental difference between the two: Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster; the BP oil spill is a manmade disaster in nature.  People caused it.  And people can keep it from happening again.  (The same is obviously not true of hurricanes.)

Hurricanes do not deserve a legislative response.  A preventable, manmade disaster of this magnitude most definitely does.

Cheap oil fuels the American life as we know it today.  It is our ravenous consumption of petroleum products that drives oil companies to drill ultra-deepwater wells.   As we continue to deplete the world’s cheaper, more accessible oil reserves, more dangerous, expensive drilling is the only option.

Yes, BP’s careless corner-cutting and deplorable disregard for safety caused this spill, but they would not be drilling there if we didn’t demand oil so greatly.

So when the President advances a plan to wean America off of its oil addiction, it is not opportunism or political exploitation, it is literally the appropriate response to this catastrophe.  The only way to completely eliminate the threat of another blowout is to stop the drilling altogether.  And the best way to do that is to end our addiction to oil.

Climate/energy bills, such as that passed by the House last year and the one expected in the Senate soon, essentially seek to accomplish 3 goals:

  1. Put a price on carbon dioxide emissions.
  2. Spur aggressive investment in renewable energy technologies.
  3. Increase our energy security/independence.

Oil is related to all three goals – negatively.

Greenhouse gas  (GHG) emissions, such as carbon dioxide, are what is known in public policy as a “negative externality.”  They are an additional cost that is not reflected in the actual price of a good.  Oil today is bought and sold at prices that do not reflect the damage that GHG emissions cause.  (A “positive externality” would be something like the pleasant smell wafting out of a chocolate factory, for which the company is not compensated for providing.)

Putting a price on carbon will enable the oil market to function more properly because the price of oil will be more accurate (this process is known as “internalizing” the externality).  For all their chest-beating about the “free market,” conservatives have done much to stifle the freedom of energy markets.

The only reason oil is so cheap today is because it is massively subsidized.  Fossil fuel industries benefit from $550 BILLON EACH YEAR in tax breaks and government subsidies.  These subsidies keep prices artificially low.

Our country grows incensed at $4 gas.  Did you know that gasoline costs well over $6/gal in many European countries?  That’s not because it’s harder to get gas there.  America would be in shambles at those prices today.  This is a serious vulnerability.  And as long as those prices remain so low, they stifle investment in newer, cleaner, renewable sources of energy, and ensure that continue to remain vulnerable to, and dependent upon, oil.

To become energy secure, we must free ourselves from our reliance upon oil.  The U.S. passed its oil production peak in 1970, and as we continue to literally run out of American oil, the distinction between “foreign oil” and “oil” will necessarily blur.  It is impossible for us to drill our way to energy independence, because we account for 20% of the world’s oil consumption but have just 2% of its remaining supply.

New drilling won't make us more secure. Only using less oil can do that.

Coal is not an option because of the horrendously large amount of pollution it produces and its outsized contributions to climate change.  Nuclear energy will be the topic of a different post, but will not be our silver bullet.  The only energy sources that can power our country for generations to come are renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal.  We must invest in their research, development, and deployment as quickly as humanly possible.

This is what the President proposes, and it is indeed what we must do.  It was the right decision before this oil spill, and it remains the right decision during/after it.

Crises are political opportunities.  That is a fact.  In such moments, the public demands action, and leaders enjoy leniency not afforded to them under normal circumstances.  It is true that leaders have abused these powers in the past: Julius Caesar and Hitler come to mind, and George W. Bush used an attack by a nation-less terrorist group to invade an arbitrary country.

But this is not one of those situations.  It is undeniably an opportunity to advance the long-stalled energy agenda, but doing so is a proper and responsible course of action in response to this oil spill.

To exploit this crisis to resurrect his climate change legislation is just wrong.” –Mike Pence (R-IN).

Fighting climate change and reducing our oil dependence are two sides of the same coin.  Doing one accomplishes the other.  To reform our energy policy right now without addressing climate would be criminally negligent.

There has been a flurry of energy polling in the wake of the oil spill:

  • 87% of Americans favor comprehensive energy legislation that encourages renewable energy sources.
  • 76% of Americans support regulating carbons dioxide as a pollutant.
  • 69% of Americans think that the US should make a large- or medium-scale effort to reduce global warming even if it incurs large or moderate economic costs.

Tell me, Republicans, who is defying the will of the people?