Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Tuesday BP Oil Spill Update: Temporary Reprieve

1. Temporary reprieve.

Just last Friday, we were expecting the oil by the first of this week. But weather forecasters have been saying for the past day that "favorable winds and waves" could forestall a Florida landfall of the BP oil slick "for a few more days or longer."

Presently, local TV weather forecasts in Mobile and Pensacola estimate the earliest Perdido Key may see tarballs or ribbons of oil is late Thursday or Friday. The PNJ is carrying an AP dispatch that says --
So far only oil sheens have reached into some coastal waters, and the oil’s slow progress despite an uncapped seafloor gusher was allowing crews and volunteers to lay boom in front of shorelines. That effort was stymied by choppy seas into the weekend but the calmer weather should help.
The later the better.

2. Many Questions, No Answers.

BP and the Florida Department of Environmental Quality held a "standing-room-only" meeting last night for Pensacola Beach residents and business leaseholders. The venue was the always-accommodating Community Church (United Church of Christ). Another smaller gathering was held on Navarre Beach.

On Pensacola Beach, things didn't go well, the PNJ reports. Although the meeting was billed as "informational," as it turned out there were lots of questions and no real information. This exchange pretty well sums it up:
"This meeting was a whole lot of 'I don't knows,' " said Brittany Cook, 23, who attended the Pensacola Beach meeting.

[DEP assist director Darryl] Boudreau didn't dispute that.

"Some questions I can answer," he said. "Some I can't. Some nobody can."

Last night, WEAR-TV showed a number of our beach friends and acquaintances pitching fits at the BP and DEP spokes-people, to no apparent effect. But that's okay. In a week or two they'll be able to pitch tarballs.

3. Oil Spill Liability.

There's been a lot of talk from the President Obama on down to the lowliest congressmen and senators in Washington, D. C. about holding BP "accountable" for the catastrophic river of oil slowly sloshing around the Gulf Coast. BP CEO Tony Hayward repeated the same apparent assurances countless times over the last two weeks, as he did yesterday on National Public Radio:
"We will absolutely be paying for the cleanup operation. There is no doubt about that. It's our responsibility — we accept it fully," he added.
Never mind that in the same breath Hayward implicates others, although it does make him sound as if he's saying, "It's really someone else's fault." There's something else that rings hollow about these assurances.

The tone and context of what Hayward is saying -- and, for that matter, the same could be said about many of our own "drill, baby, drill" congressmen and senators -- is that BP will make everyone "whole" for the losses the catastrophic oil leak has caused. Turn on any TV and you'll see Gulf Coast commercial fishermen, boat captains, tourist business owners, restauranteurs, and homeowners near vulnerable wetlands in places like Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana, expecting BP to honor its word.

Not so fast. It seems to us the assurances of BP and its hired help in Congress are as slippery as their oil slicks. They echo corporate-friendly legalese drawn straight out of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The Act is summarized here and here. The full text is here. Recent amendments to the act, making it more industry-friendly, are discussed here. A relatively recent, and long, student-written law review commentary explaining some of the ways the oil industry hopes to evade the act or have it declared unconstitutional is here.

Essentially, the act fixes an industry-wide cap, or limit, on the total damages to be paid to the entire universe of claimants in any one incident. That legal cap looks a lot tighter than any oil well plug BP ever used.

Attorney Abigail Field writes that the maximum BP can be stuck for is $75 million, "a sum that's orders of magnitude below the losses" likely to be suffered across the Gulf Coast.
BP will face unlimited damages under the 1990 law [only] if the accident was caused by BP's "gross negligence," or by BP's violations of federal safety, operational or construction regulations.
So, when you read the assurances of some spokesperson for BP, or one of the congressmen and senators they have in their pocket, or a state DEP official who says BP is the "responsible party," be sure to look carefully to see if anyone is admitting that BP was "grossly negligent." We know a corporation that would probably bet you $ 35 billion dollars it'll never happen.

4. Senator Bill Nelson.

On CNN yesterday, Bill Nelson (D-FL), said it was "baloney" to believe that BP willingly will pay more than a pittance to compensate for the all damage its Deepwater Horizon well has caused. That's why he's offering new legislation next week to amend the law.
Even as lawmakers rush to put together legislative responses to the spill, none appeared to be trying halt drilling in the gulf altogether. Instead, they are likely to focus on increasing inspections, oversight and safety requirements on offshore rigs. There could also be broad support for measures to halt new deep-water exploration and ensure that oil companies will foot the bill for cleanup.

Florida Democrat Bill Nelson , who has been one of the most vocal opponents of new offshore drilling, has introduced legislation to do both. One bill would halt new exploratory wells such as the exploded Deepwater Horizon, until an investigation of the current disaster is complete. Another would dramatically raise the cap on an oil company’s liability for economic damages in a spill from $75 million to $10 billion.
It will be a challenge to draft legislation that would effectively, and within the constraints of the Constitution, accomplish what Nelson proposes. It also will be a huge task to marshal the bill through the thoroughly dysfunctional U.S. Senate.

But Nelson has been a stalwart opponent of drilling in the Gulf. At least until Obama cut the legs out from under him, he was effective, too. If anyone can do it, we're guessing Bill Nelson can.

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