Tuesday, June 22, 2010

So Long MMS Tuesday June 22 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Oilcast.

The Pensacola News Journal boasts on the front page above the fold, "Escambia Mostly Unscathed" by oil. It's true, so far. Tarballs continue to be seen in Panama City and Fort Walton Beach to the east. "Lots of oil and lots of sharks" are in Bon Secour Bay near Mobile, Alabama and "globs of crude and gooey tar -- some the size of pancakes" at Orange Beach to the west.

Some signs of oil in visible amounts -- but "lessening" -- are at Perdido, but next to no oil has been seen in the past week along Pensacola Beach.

To be sure, some time in the past forty-eight hours an oil sheen reportedly seeped from Pensacola Bay into the boomed entrance of Little Sabine Bay (left). But that's on the mainland side of the island and doesn't affect Gulfside beaches.

The oilcast through Thursday (see above) looks reasonably favorable for our continued good luck.

2. Lakota Funding.

The absence of great gobs of oil washing over the bikini-clad bodies of tourists in Escambia County has one inconvenient aspect. It makes it harder for Pensacola's local government to demand from BP needed help without including neighboring counties who can come up with dramatic photos of oily gobs fouling the beaches and marshlands.

"$14 Million Sought for Job Growth," reads the leading headline in today's daily Pensacola paper. This is going to be a hard sell even with a coalition of harder-hit counties:
[S]ix Panhandle counties feeling the brunt of the oil spill are asking Gov. Charlie Crist to seek $14 million from BP to help them spur job growth in industries unrelated to tourism.

"We expect the effects of this disaster to stretch far beyond our tourism business into every corner of our economy from the military to renewable energy," said Merrill, a Pensacola developer and restaurant owner. "Future economic growth of target industry sectors not dependent on tourism or inward migration is our only hope of creating a sustainable economy in Northwest Florida."

Along with Escambia, economic development agencies in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay and Gulf counties each are requesting $2 million from BP.
The request also includes another $2 million for "a regional economic development agency" known as "Florida's Great Northwest."

There is some degree of logic -- and certainly a need -- behind the request. The Florida panhandle is almost totally dependent on tourism. Without it the job market drops off a cliff. It's likely to be decades before things return to any semblance of normality.

The root problem, other than the oil spill that's poisoning the Gulf, is that state and regional economic planning in Florida has been a long-running joke. But whether BP should be compelled to pay for diversifying our economy when our own state and local leaders for decades failed to do so is bound to be a contentious issue.

On one hand, there is the hallowed principle of the English common law that "a tortfeasor takes his victim as he finds him." BP, being British, will know of that rule. On the other hand, there must be some limit to how much even a despised oil company should pay to compensate for past mistakes of others which left us so vulnerable to a destruction of a major segment of the economy in Florida.

Not that it helps, but this puts us in mind of an ancient Lakota Sioux custom we've read about. Among one of the subtribal "associations" noted by the early ethnographer Thomas Tyon was one that held if a brave rescued the life of another member of the tribe then the rescuer became responsible for the rescued tribal member for the rest of his life. Another subtribal association among the Sioux, known as the "Tokala" or Foxes, required that if a "fellow Fox... died or was killed and left a widow, he should keep that widow from want" for the rest of her life.

We don't suppose the Lakota rules of life offer any precedent BP wants to observe. But it's of interest to note that before the British first arrived in the New World there were native Americans who readily shouldered the moral responsibility to care for others, especially the less fortunate. Why shouldn't BP follow the same custom?

To be less frivolous, BP could -- and for the future health of the world, probably should -- consider funding some alternative energy projects in the Florida panhandle. Solar and wind are among the most obvious. It's the least they could do for the world if as it turns out they destroyed the entire chain of life as well as the economy all over the Gulf of Mexico.

3. Fish Stories.

We neglected to mention a curious speculation in yesterday's Pensacola News Journal. The headline is more indefinite than the fish stories within: "Marine Life May be Fleeing Oil Spill."

According to a bunch of stories being swapped around town by fisherman, Kimberly Blair reports a number of unusual behaviors by marine life are being seen by the people who like to match wits against a fish:
  • Deepwater amberjack are showing up in shallower water around the Pensacola Beach
  • Larger numbers of sharks are tugging at fishing lines in the water around Fort Pickens
  • "Destin anglers noted cobia heading east instead of their usual migratory path west."
  • "Hundreds of cow rays... have been patrolling the coast in recent weeks.""
It's also reported there is a "major decline" in nesting sea turtles. Only three nests have been found this year compared with eight last year at this time.

That
one we believe. Do you suppose it could have something to do with the fact that 45 out 46 stranded dolphins are known dead?

As for the other tales, it's certainly plausible that the enormous oil spill is changing fish and shark behaviors. Still, it's hard to judge if local fishermen really are seeing indirect effects of the oil spill or just telling fish tales. Perhaps all that's going on, as Gulf Islands National Seashore biologist Mark Nicholas told reporter Blair, is that "people are finally noticing what's out there."

4. MMS Gone, Hello BOE.

It took the Bush-Cheney administration eight years to thoroughly corrupt Minerals Management Service. It took the Obama administration fifteen months to change the agency's name, reorganize and divide it, and install a tough administrator who has a reasonable chance of reforming it. Yesterday--
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed an order renaming the agency the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The agency, which both regulates the oil and gas industry and collects billions in royalties from it, will be known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy or BOE for short, Salazar said.
More important than the name change, there's a new sheriff in town:
Michael R. Bromwich, 56, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Justice Department inspector general, will lead a reorganization of the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service.
Bromwich is a widely respected investigator and former prosecutor whose specialty has become "drilling down into sclerotic government organizations." A number of newspapers and blogs note that he has no "energy experience." They might also want to note that he has no experience taking bribes, shoving cocaine up his nose while partying with oil company reps or sleeping around with oil company women.

MMS doesn't need another drilling engineer. It needs a relentless cop. The other day we heard no less a critic of MMS than Pensacola's own Prof. Enid Sisskin singing the praises of lower-level staff members at MSS.

Sisskin is one of the nation's best-informed experts on drilling policy in the Gulf of Mexico and a frequent witness at congressional oil drilling hearings. She was being interviewed on Pensacola Beach by a documentary filmmaker.

"There are a lot of good people at MMS, very good," she said. However, they are mostly professional lower-level employees. If one reads their internal reports and recommendations, she says -- and they are publicly available -- time and again one sees that lower-level professionals authored thorough, detailed reports with well-reasoned recommendations to protect public and worker safety and the environment. However, Sisskin adds, their reports "were trashed" by higher-up political appointees in MMS during the Bush years and never made it out of the agency's files.

5. Oil Spill Attorney Town Meeting Scheduled.

WSRE-TV, the local public television channel, is hosting a "town hall meeting" led by "a panel of local attorneys" who will "provide legal guidance on a variety of topics, including the [BP oil spill] claims process, class action suits, multi-district litigation, how to document and track losses, potential claimants and more." The meeting will be held in the television station's performance studio from w8 to 10 in the morning tomorrow, Wednesday, July 23.

6. Cap and Trade.

Hendrick Hertzberg of The New Yorker, in the newest issue that's on its way to newsstands right now, weighs in on President Obama's Oval Office speech of last week. Along the way he recounts how BP's oil spill numbers have shifted crazily over the past two months:
At first, after the explosion aboard the giant oil rig Deepwater Horizon, the rig’s operator, BP, estimated the resulting flow at a thousand barrels a day. A nasty business, yes. But at that rate it would have taken eight months to approach the level of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and eight years to equal the record for the Gulf, set in 1980 at Ixtoc, off the Mexican coast.

By May 17th—the day that the chief executive officer of BP predicted that “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest”—it was obvious that what was unfolding was the single biggest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States. By last Tuesday, June 15th, when President Obama commandeered the networks for his first address to the nation from the Oval Office, the per-day estimate had been ratcheted up to sixty thousand barrels—a thousand every twenty-four minutes.

Against this background, Obama’s speech was bound to feel unequal to the occasion. What “people” wanted to hear was an answer to Malia Obama’s now famous question—“Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”—and the answer they wanted to hear was yes, or, failing that, real soon. This the President could not provide. Plugging the hole is beyond his power, or, apparently, anyone else’s.

Then he takes the discussion about the substance of Obama's speech to the very place it should be:
The President was right, of course, that the ultimate cause of the Gulf disaster is out-of-control consumption of a dwindling resource that must be extracted in increasingly dangerous ways. The most effective, most efficient way to rein in that consumption and make clean energy price-competitive would be to slap a heavy tax on carbon. (Ideally, much of the revenue would be rebated to the public as a cut in the payroll tax, since it makes more sense to tax things we want to discourage, such as oil use, than things we want to encourage, such as work.)

This is what some European countries have done, and it may well be what Obama would do if he had the kind of legislative power that European prime ministers have and that many Americans, of all political persuasions, assume that he has, too.
* * *
As he did with health care, Obama is trying for the maximum that, in his judgment, our rusty, clanking legislative sausage-maker is capable of delivering. As he noted in his speech, a year ago the House passed “a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill.” That bill languishes in the Senate, where its weaker counterpart is on life support, with the filibuster poised to cut it off.

If part three of Obama’s speech was cautiously, even uninspiringly, worded, that is because it is part of the delicate legislative strategy of a President who knows that, while the perfect is out of reach, the good (and maybe even the so-so) is its ally, not its enemy.

Hertzberg once was a presidential speech writer in Jimmy Carter's White House. In fact, he's credited (wrongly) as the author of former President Carter's so-called "Malaise speech." (Herztberg: "In truth I was more stenographer-typist than author, smoothing and coordinating bits of draft from various people... .")

In an earlier issue of The New Yorker Hertzberg gives a detailed account of the "malaise" speech that is worth knowing, especially now:
For those who weren’t yet born on July 15, 1979, or were too little to stay up and watch TV that night, the “malaise” address was President Carter’s most famous, most notorious, most ambitious, and (in my opinion) most interesting foray into big-time speechifying, a field in which he was only intermittently successful (although, to be fair, he did manage to talk his way into the Presidency).
* * *
On one occasion, Carter, seeking to go beyond technocratic approaches, tried to cast the energy problem in sweeping moral terms. This was the so-called “malaise” episode, widely recognized as one of the most memorable moments of the Carter administration and almost as widely scorned as one of the most contemptible. The received version of what happened is simple. It goes like this: in the summer of 1979, President Carter was overwhelmed by energy and economic crises. In desperation, he made a disastrous speech blaming the American people and a national “malaise” for his own manifest failures of policy and leadership. The American people, horrified, turned him out of office at the first opportunity.

It goes almost without saying that the historical reality and the political caricature do not comport with one another. For example, here are four details of the episode that are at variance with how most people seem to remember it: 1. Carter himself never mentioned the word “malaise.” 2. The speech itself was an enormous popular success. It generated a record amount of positive mail to the White House, and Carter’s approval rating in the polls zoomed up by eleven points literally overnight. 3. The sudden political damage came not from the speech but from the Cabinet firings a few days later. 4. Although Carter has been flayed for blaming others, the first third of the speech is devoted to the most excoriating self-criticism ever heard from any American President. As these details suggest, the “malaise” episode has become encrusted in myth.

There's much more that's useful to know about that speech, particularly if you think Obama could have done better with his Oval Office address. Yeah, but Carter tried, you might think, and look what happened to him. You may come to a different conclusion after reading the whole piece ["A Very Merry Malaise"].

Hertzberg knows what he's taking about. He's been there, done that. So when he hears Obama giving a "cautious, even uninspiring" speech ["Spilled Oil"] and concludes the speech was expressly tailored to advancing a "delicate legislative strategy" -- that is, it was written to appeal to 100 U.S. senators rather than to comfort millions of viewers -- then you can believe it.

Over the past year and a half Obama has received a great deal of criticism, much of it from the left, for being too timid in advancing a health reform agenda, reigning in Wall Street, and reconfiguring the nation's energy policy to take account of our reckless addiction to carbon as it poisons the planet. Hertzberg is absolutely right in blaming the Senate, and particularly its antiquated filibuster and "personal hold" rules.

As Donald Rumsfeld might say, he has to govern with the Senate he has not the Senate he might wish to have. But it's the Senate's minority of bitter-end "just say no to everything" conservatives that have forced both the executive branch and the "people's house" to swallow watered down, pale imitations of real change.

There is no fix to that other than to elect more environmentally sensitive senators who are not in the pockets of Wall Street, the insurance industry, and Big Oil. Yet, there is a case to be made that if the only way forward is to change the make-up of the dysfunctional U.S. Senate, Obama's best hope for doing that is to rouse the public, not appeal to recalcitrant senators. That's more or less what Rachel Maddow's Anti-Oval Office speech illustrates.

What do you think? When the drilling ban is lifted, which approach offers the nation a better chance of avoiding Massive Ocean-Killing Oil Spill #2? Stirring speeches about alternative energy or "delicate legislative strategies? to achieve it?"

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Salazar was busy making changes to MMS before the well blowout this year. I'll just post a couple of links here and leave any commentary writing to you, since you do that so well. I sure would like to hear someone on the tee vee talk about Randall Luthi, and what he did at MMS. And there's hope, I hope that the oil and gas royalty changes to a royalty-in-value schedule and that the royalty rate is raised to at least as high as Venezuela's rate which currently stands at 51% and that a large percentage of that money goes to transform our energy production to a sustainable method.


http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/677-e2-wire/91701-interior-to-compare-us-oil-and-gas-royalty-rates-with-other-countries

Interior to compare U.S. oil-and-gas royalty rates with other countries
By Ben Geman - 04/12/10 04:34 PM ET

The Interior Department on Monday announced it is reviewing whether royalty rates that oil-and-gas producers pay for projects on federal lands and in federal waters are too low.

An upcoming study will examine financial rules for oil-and-gas in other countries and compare them with U.S. practices.

The department, in announcing the study, cited a Government Accountability Office report several years ago that found the U.S. federal government has a lower “government take” than many other oil-and-gas producing countries.

U.S. royalty rates are currently 12.5 percent for onshore federal leases and up to 18.75 percent for offshore tracts.
snip



http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/09/16/16greenwire-interior-to-eliminate-royalty-in-kind-program-81731.html
September 16, 2009

The scandal-ridden program that allows industry to provide oil and natural gas directly to the Interior Department in lieu of cash royalty payments will be killed, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today.

"The royalty-in-kind program has been a blemish, in my view, on this department," Salazar said at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing.
snip

More rigid safety measures and higher royalty rates in other countries hasn't stopped oil and gas production in those locations, and it won't stop production here, either.
Do you remember Bush purchasing millions of gallons of crude oil for the strategic reserve even when crude prices were at their peak? I really have to wonder what Bush did with the oil from the royalty-in-kind program. I really would like to see THOSE records.

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