Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Advocate in Chief: Wednesday June 16 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Pensacola Beach Oil Forecast.

Escambia County's Oil Spill Incident Response center today says of Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key:
Winds from the south will continue to push oil towards our shores. Today we have a 40 percent chance of rain. Highs in the 90s and high humidity may hinder cleanup efforts.

NOAA near shore forecasting shows continued oil impact for the next 72 hours.
2. Obama's Visit.

Yesterday, President Obama made four stops in Pensacola: the Grand Hotel being an exception, three of them are on the average tourist trail. They'll be familiar to anyone who has visited Pensacola Beach and environs: the Pensacola Beach fishing pier, Casino Beach, and NAS Pensacola.

At one or another location, President Obama talked privately with the pier's Fish Sandwich Snack bar owners Mike and Laura Pinzone, Florida governor Charlie Crist, Pensacola Mayor Mike Wiggins, and our own District 4 county commissioner Grover Robinson Jr.

Both beach-related fortunates were good choices. The Pinzones have a nifty business totally dependent on beach tourism. Robinson is perhaps the only completely sane county commissioner of the bunch.

Other local pols who were angling for face time with the president had to settle for group handshakes all around and maybe a cordial nod from the president. Mr. Oil Spill had sense enough to stay nearly invisible.

3. Extra Guests?

We're speculating here. But we'd be surprised if Obama didn't also happen to find waiting in his hotel suite before bedtime one or two representatives from the high-powered law firms suing BP for RICO violations.

That's not the kind of thing likely to appear in the public record until the inner circle of the White House retires to write their memoirs. But it can hardly have escaped the president's notice that a new lawsuit with major implications was filed in Pensacola federal court the day before he arrived. And, at least one of the law firms has been a generous contributor to many Democratic Party candidates in past years.

4. Lawsuits.

The Pensacola lawsuit ironically echoes many of the same allegations made by BP shareholders who sued the corporation in a Louisiana federal court last week. The laws relied upon in each of the lawsuits are different, but the factual allegations have many similarities.

The Louisiana lawsuit --
notes BP's prior statements about its Gulf operations being a primary economic driver, and the company's assertions that it had the technology to safely conduct the operations. But nearly a month after the catastrophic explosion at the Deepwater Horizon, BP's Chief Executive Officer Anthony B. Hayward admitted that BP did not have the technology available to stop the Gulf leak.

The lawsuit chronicles BP's long history of spills, fires and explosions at its facilities, including a 2005 explosion in Texas City, Texas, that killed 15 people, and a 2006 oil leak in its Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, operations pipeline. In the Alaska case, Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling served as lead counsel for securities plaintiffs who brought suit against BP, and secured a multimillion-dollar settlement on their behalf.
The Pensacola lawsuit, according to the PNJ, alleges --
BP chose to misrepresent its capability to respond and prevent impact to the environment, the public and the plaintiffs, and concealed its incapacity to response.
* * *
In 2008, the Inspector General's Office uncovered a cozy relationship between MMS and the oil industry that included industry officials hosting sex and drug parties for government workers whose duty was to regulate the drilling. Industry officials also showered their own regulators with lavish gifts, vacations, tickets to sporting events and parties.

"Since 2000, the relationship between the oil companies and the MMS agency that regulates their offshore drilling has been characterized as an incestuous revolving door," the lawsuit says.

The suit also references a 2000 retreat for government officials hosted by former Vice President Dick Cheney with the goal of drafting a national energy policy.

The meeting, which is now referred to the "Cheney Energy Task Force," was attended by a number of oil executives, including BP's regional president Bob Malone, the lawsuit alleges.

"Upon information and belief, part of BP's agenda at the meetings included installing oil industry appointments to MMS and other agencies so that BP could fraudulently cut corners on safeguards for offshore drilling projects," the lawsuit claims.

Those rolled-back safety standards are at the heart of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, a 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City Refinery and the 2007 release of 200,000 gallons of crude oil into the Alaskan wilderness, the suit says.
The one obvious difference between the two court actions is that the Pensacola lawsuit explicitly puts blame where it belongs: on "government agencies during the Bush administration" which deliberately relaxed "regulatory oversight of offshore drilling and oil operations in the United States."

MMS became so crooked and corrupt under George W. Bush that when the history of that agency is written it will have to be shelved in the "adults only" section of your local library. If it's candid, it will be too racy for children.

5. Presidential Remarks.

Our eye was caught by two themes running through all three of President Obama's public speeches in the Pensacola area yesterday.

The first is how detailed he was in describing the local actions he promised to undertake. The second was his explicit, extremely broad promise to "do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to deal with this disaster."

6. Local Action.

On the beach, Obama promised the very things local officials were saying they needed in the days leading up to his visit. Obama gave it to them:
[W]e’re going to be doing everything we can -- make sure that there are skimmers out, there are booms out, and a response to keep the oil offshore.
In addition, the White House will assign "deputy incident commanders to each of the individual states, so Florida will have its own deputy incident commander, as Mississippi and Alabama do." He surprised some, too, by announcing "we’re also going to set up an incident management team in Tallahassee."

Florida state government plainly has been overwhelmed by the oil spill. It's also been distracted by an unseemly, disgusting scramble among all the state pols trying to claim credit for demanding tourism advertising money from BP. (Turns out, it was state CFO Alex Sink who first made the demand.) So, having a Florida-specific "incident management team'" that can ignore our midget-minded state politicians makes good sense.

We do wonder, however, about placing the team three and a half hours away in Tallahassee. You don't see the Alabama "state incident command" in Montgomery, do you? Presumably, Tallahassee was Governor Crist's idea. Obama probably was being accommodating to local wishes.

What with the oil being caught up in the loop current, maybe it makes sense to put the incident management team where it will be centrally located to both ends of the state of Florida. But for a long, long time to come, it looks to us like it's the Florida Panhandle that will be needing most of the management team's attention.

Less than an hour later at N.A.S., the president sounded exactly the right alarm: "This is an assault on our shores, and we’re going to fight back with everything we’ve got." He ticked off an impressive list of resources the federal government has committed to fight this war against BP's oil invasion:
They’re soldiers on the beaches putting out sandbags and building barriers and cleaning up the oil, and helping people process their claims for compensation from BP. They’re sailors and Marines offering their ships and their skimmers and their helicopters and miles of boom. They’re airmen overhead, flying in equipment and spraying dispersant. And, of course, there are Coast Guardsmen and women on the cutters, in the air, working around the clock.

And when I say this is the largest response of its kind in American history, I mean it. We’ve got more than 5,000 vessels on site -- skimmers, tugs, barges, dozens of aircraft. More than 27,000 personnel are on the scene, fighting this every day, putting out millions of feet of boom and cleaning the shores.

All told, we’ve authorized the deployment of 17,500 National Guardsmen to respond to this crisis. So far, only about 1,600 have been activated. That leaves a lot of Guardsmen ready to help. And if our governors call on them, I know they’ll be ready, because they’re always ready.

All in all, the president on the ground in Pensacola sounded very much like a general describing the fighting resources he's committing to battle. And well he should. He is, after all, Commander in Chief.

7. Presidential Advocacy.

Even more striking to us was how much, at times, he also sounded like a lawyer reassuring his clients that he's going to do "whatever it takes, for as long as it takes" to win. Lawyers, of course, like doctors, accountants, and other professionals, often engage in this kind of reassurance for injured clients who are in extremis -- as so many are around Pensacola, so we noted yesterday.

The president pledged:
[M]y administration is with you for the long haul to make sure BP pays for the damage that it has done and to make sure that you are getting the help you need to protect this beautiful coast and to rehabilitate the damaged areas, to revitalize this region, and to make sure that nothing like this happens ever again.
At other times he sounded like a Chamber of Commerce director, promoting local tourism:
The sand is white and the water is blue. So folks who are looking for a good vacation, they can still come down to Pensacola. People need to know that Pensacola is still open for business.
Can't blame him for that. That's what all the businesses around here have been crying for. But as we've said before, conditions will soon change for the worse and then what can one say to promote tourism?

8. Oval Office Address.

The president returned to Washington and gave his first national address from the Oval Office last night. You can read a full transcript and see the video by clicking here.

Reactions of national media types, pols, and bobbleheads were mixed. And we're not talking just about the predictable knee-jerk opposition of Republicans, who long ago ceased to put the nation's interests ahead of partisan politics.

Many liberals were deeply unhappy, too. Some of them deplored the lack of details in the speech. They didn't realize, we suppose, that the president had been fairly detailed in his local remarks, as we mention above. Others thought Obama's speech missed the opportunity for a larger message pushing for climate change legislation.

Columnist Eugene Robinson, rather frivolously in our view, thought the speech went downhill from the moment Steven Chu's Nobel Prize was mentioned. Rachel Maddow savaged the speech as offering a prayer, not a plan. Keith Olbermann and Howard Fineman had a heated agreement that it contained "nothing specific, nothing at all."

Here at home, She Who Must Be Obeyed almost threw a shoe at Obama through the TV set after he ended by mentioning the "blessing of the fleet."

"I've seen that 'Blessing of the Fleet' stuff on Cape Cod," she snarled. "What a joke. He might as well have mentioned the blessing of the pets."

9. A-Historical Attacks.

One criticism we heard on at least two different networks truly puzzles us. On MSNBC Howard Fineman said of Obama, "If he was going to make the analogy to World II it should have been like Franklin Roosevelt explaining exactly what was happening in Europe, where Patton was going, where the troops were going, what the losses were, what the advances were, what the troop strengths were... ."

Columnist David Brooks repeated Fineman's point, and let slip where it came from:
People in the White House were describing this as a battle plan. They said they were going to learn from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, y'know, some of his speeches during the Depression and World War II. And, what Roosevelt did was he told people to lay a map on the floor and he went through sector by sector with great specificity about what they were doing and what we were going to do. And I was hoping the president would do something like that, maybe even show a map - 'We're doing this here, we're doing that there' -- in order to combat the sense that there's chaos especially in the cleanup.
FDR's fireside radio chats during the Depression are legendary, to be sure. But if Fineman, Brooks, and their unnamed White House sources have the notion that FDR shared "with great specificity what... we were going to do" then they are woefully mistaken and need to go back to school. Reality was quite the opposite.

As Betty Houchin Winfield's history of this very issue ["FDR and the News Media"] amply demonstrates, "Roosevelt carefully managed release of government information on great pressing questions, whether on the judicial reform bill, the lend lease act, or the war and subsequent victories." Throughout most of the war he disclosed almost no details to the people or the media about American military strategies, deployments, strengths, or weaknesses.

Indeed, Roosevelt canceled press conferences, consistently refused to answer questions about victories as well as defeats at sea or on land, and referred all demands for 'specifics' to military press officers. When a St. Louis Dispatch news reporter "recounted his news gathering difficulties with the military and said an official censor would be better," FDR responded, "That has got to be determined by the higher officers -- the Army and Navy."
For journalists, these new hindrances to newsgathering were were most frustrating. The president insisted they would all have to wait until information conformed to what the military approved. * ** * Roosevelt insisted that the release of information must be subject to military approval.
* * *
During the depths of the war, information and even diverse viewpoints and arguments about administrative actions or proposals could become yet another weapon for the enemy.
The point, here, is that if Obama had shared the kind of details Brooks and Fineman ask for he would have been doing exactly the opposite of how FDR acted during the war. For that matter, Obama would have been undercutting the very role he told us in Pensacola he has taken on: as advocate for coastal residents and businesses "to make sure BP pays for the damage that it has done." Neither a wartime president nor an advocate seeking damages from his adversary discloses details of his plan of attack.

Inane, insipid, and a-historical commentary by television commentators is nothing new. Indeed, it has become epidemic on television and radio. We're disappointed, but not surprised, to see it infecting PBS and Keith Olbermann's usually well-informed program.

As far as we are concerned, Obama on the ground in Pensacola did and said what needed to be done and said. In the Oval Office, he probably said as much as the steadily-declining attention span of TV viewers could absorb -- although we could have done without the blessing of the fleet nonsense and the concluding prayer. Any more details about strategy would have betrayed his vows to advocate for coastal residents.

As the Pensacola News Journal's editorial says today, in his Oval office speech Obama "promised to do something" about our scandalous, self-destructive dependency on oil. That part of the president's message was unmistakable. Now, what remains is to see if he follows through.

Dept. of Amplification
6-16 pm

Independent News publisher Rick Outzen has written an article for The Daily Beast about the reactions of locals to Obama's speeches here and in Washington yesterday. Most of them seemed to be cautiously optimistic. But on his blog, Rick says "the reaction was more negative than I expected."


Anonymous said...

That is key: "Now, what remains is to see if he follows through." Here we are at almost 2 months from the explosion, and we are being fed a good line from the pres. Actions will be the determining factor. I must say I am very disappointed with who Obama surrounds himself with, especially his economic advisors. His handling of the financial crisis did not change anything from Bush's policies (i.e. Bernanke and Geithner). And right now the war has only been escalated. Now he says he will start drawing down troops this summer. Well, its this summer, and I do not hear about any troops coming home. We only hear words, we never see action.

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