Friday, May 21, 2010

Law and Oiler Friday: May 21 BP Oil Spill Update

"Too much information is now in the hands of BP's many lawyers, and too little is being disclosed to the public. The Gulf of Mexico is a crime scene, and the perpetrator cannot be left in charge of assessing the damage."
1. Pensacola Forecast.

Mostly sunny, warm, and light winds from the southeast until Saturday evening, according to NOAA's Mobile, Alabama, regional weather forecast. Not much change is expected until Monday, when winds may switch and start coming from the southwest for a day or so.

Several correspondents have written or posted messages asking if they should proceed with plans for a beach weekend in Pensacola. Our answer is that if we were in your position, we'd come ahead.

Based on the forecasted winds and currents, it seems likely BP's giant oil slick will stay offshore from Pensacola Beach and out of sight over the weekend, just as it has since the disaster of April 20. Odds are the weather will be, as predicted, warm and mostly sunny. The water likely will remain clear. As for odors, we've only smelled oil twice in the last month, and both times it was a transitory sensation that went away after a few hours.

Even if we prove wrong, there's a secondary reason to come. Just think: you'd be right here, just at the moment history happens. It'll be something to tell your grandchildren... in the unlikely event, that is, the oil comes ashore.

2. Sour Smells.

Yesterday taught us that the smells of BP's leaking oil well can be detected almost anywhere, even when the large river of oil at the surface is fifty to seventy-five miles away. What alarmed many is how acrid the odor can be at such a distance. To think what it will smell like when the oil is close enough to see is almost unimaginable.

3. Law and Oiler: Bush "MMS" Division.

Thunk-thunk. The massive BP oil spill, it is clear, hardly can be considered "Obama's Katrina," as most right-wingers would like to think. If anything, it's "Bush's Katrina II."

The former president -- with the assistance, most likely, of vice-president Dick Cheney -- left behind a time bomb we have come to know as the deeply dysfunctional and corrupt Minerals Management Services agency. As William Galston recently wrote in The New Republic:
After the Bush administration took office, the MMS became a cesspool of corruption and conflicts of interest. In September 2008, Earl Devaney, Interior’s Inspector General, delivered a report to Secretary Dirk Kempthorne that has to be read to be believed. One section, headlined “A Culture of Ethical Failure,” documented the belief among numerous MMS staff that they were “exempt from the rules that govern all other employees of the Federal Government.” They adopted a “private sector approach to essentially everything they did.” This included “opting themselves out of the Ethics in Government Act.”

On at least 135 occasions, they accepted gifts and gratuities from oil and gas companies with whom they worked. One of the employees even had a lucrative consulting arrangement with a firm doing business with the government. And in a laconic sentence that speaks volumes, the IG reported: “When confronted by our investigators, none of the employees involved displayed remorse.”
Even after the cocaine, bribery, and sex scandals at MMS came to light late in the Bush administration, as Carl Hiassen summed up with uncharacteristic seriousness, Bush-Cheney prosecuted only one of the twelve MMS executives considered to be among the worst (and most repulsive) miscreants.

As for the rest, Bush's Secretary of Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, prescribed merely a half-day of "ethics training." As one wag sarcastically observes, that was appropriate:
[H]ow could oil company execs know that plying public officials with cocaine and hookers in exchange for favors was against the rules? They don't tell you this stuff in business school.
4. Law and Oiler: Obama "NOAA" Division.

A mounting pile of news articles and editorials suggests the Obama administration is coming in for its own share of the blame. The chief complaint is that the administration has been too gullible in relying on BP corporation to inform the American public about the factual details of the leak and to mitigate damages the leak is causing.

At least one Obama appointee looks to us to be vulnerable: Jane Lubchenco.

Dan Froomkin's article on Huffington Post earlier this week ["Gulf Oil Spill: Government Remains Blind To Underwater Oil Hazard"] leaves the distinct impression that one of the government's problems is inside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Froomkin writes:
[T]he National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose job it is to assess and track the damage being caused by the BP oil spill that began four weeks ago, is only monitoring what's visible -- the slick on the Gulf's surface -- and currently does not have a single research vessel taking measurements below.
Lubchenco is the director of NOAA. Froomkin's article got an extra boost yesterday from Justin Gillis' front-page article in the Times yesterday ["Scientists Fault Lack of Studies Over Gulf Oil Spill"]:
Tensions between the Obama administration and the scientific community over the gulf oil spill are escalating, with prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope.
Read the full article and you come away with the conclusion that it's not "the government" scientists are unhappy with. It's director Jane Lubchenco.

In an interview with Gwen Ifill on PBS' News Hour at the start of this week, Lubchenco seemed to be offering a far more sanguine -- not to mention deceptive -- take on the spill than is justified by the facts. And she failed to persuade anyone, except the credulous Ms. Ifill, that the scale of the government's response is appropriate to the size of the spill.
  • During the interview Lubchenco endorsed BP's use of dispersants as "a lot less toxic than the oil." EPA yesterday ordered BP to switch to less toxic and more effective dispersants within 71 hours. (Or, maybe not, ABC was reporting late this afternoon.)
  • Lubchenco did acknowledge "there's a very small stream of oil" nearing the Florida Loop. But then she predicted if any oil reached south Florida it "is not likely to have a very significant impact."
  • When asked about reports an underwater lake of oil had been detected which is "300 feet thick in some places, 10 miles long,"Lubchenco confessed there was "something" seen at an unusual depth below the surface, but she blithely asserted NOAA was only "in the very early stages of understanding" what it was.
  • During the Ifill interview, the director of NOAA clearly implied a research vessel, The Pelican, was under orders from NOAA to be sampling water on site and it was "in the very early stages of analyzing the samples that they took and looking at the information from the instruments that they had on board." It soon was revealed, however, that The Pelican wasn't a NOAA research ship at all. As the New York Times reported Wednesday:
    On May 6, NOAA called attention to its role in financing the work of a small research ship called the Pelican, owned by a university consortium in Louisiana. But when scientists aboard that vessel reported over the weekend that they had discovered large plumes undersea that appeared to be made of oil droplets, NOAA criticized the results as premature and requiring further analysis.

    Rick Steiner, a marine biologist and a veteran of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, assailed NOAA in an interview, declaring that it had been derelict in analyzing conditions beneath the sea.

  • Later, when asked about reports from scientists that The Pelican had "discovered large plumes undersea," Lubchenco characterized the reports as "misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate."
  • The UK Guardian reports that as recently as last night Lubchenco "tried to brush aside demands to produce an estimate for how much oil has now entered the gulf, and where it might be headed. "'At this point, it would not be appropriate to speculate on what that estimate is,'" she told reporters.
At best, if one were to give Lubchenco the benefit of the doubt, she's struggling to translate her scientific wait-for-definitive-proof style into effective and consistent public information. At worst, she's a "What Me Worry?" Alfred E. Nueman who still hasn't marshaled the necessary resources to get to the bottom of the BP leak and the dimensions of the threat it poses to the Gulf Coast.

"NOAA has missed the ball catastrophically on the tracking and effects monitoring of this spill," a marine conservationist told Froomkin. "They need 20 research ships on this, yesterday."

He added the agency's failure was "inexcusable." And, so we think quite possible, grounds for replacing the director of NOAA.

minor edit 5-21 pm

1 comment:

RobertM said...

“Less Toxic Dispersants Lose Out in BP Oil Spill Cleanup”, journalist Paula Quinlan questions why BP is using the 100 % toxic, 54 percent effective dispersant Corexit to clean up the oil when twelve other dispersants proved more effective in EPA testing.

Read the rest here