The Spill Washington Forgot

April 21st, 2011 at 11:23 pm | 10 Comments |

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After the 1969 Santa Barbara well blowout that smeared 100, no rx 000 barrels of oil along California’s picturesque central coast, order the resulting public outrage helped launch the modern movement that secured, with bipartisan support, environmental protection laws.

After the Exxon Valdez barreled into Bligh Reef and spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude into the pristine, wildlife-rich, waters and shorelines of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requiring use of double hulled tankers and setting liability limits. The spill also led to Congressional and Presidential moratoriums on drilling offshore along most of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf.

After the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout that spewed 260 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and made the two earlier disasters seem like mere dribbles in comparison, virtually nothing has changed.

President Obama did a few things. He split up and renamed the Minerals Management Service, instituted a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling, and established a bipartisan commission that spotlighted what co-chairman and former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly called a “culture of complacency” at all of the key corporate players at Deepwater Horizon– BP, Transocean, and Halliburton.

However, Congress has been unable to agree on strengthening safety requirements, Republicans and oil state Democrats have been clamoring for fewer restrictions on drilling, and polling shows that the American public has pretty much shrugged off the spill over concerns about rising gas prices.

Obama appears to have bowed to political pressure by ending the temporary moratorium and stepping up the pace of issuing drilling permits. Some, if not all, of the new permits have been issued to companies whose spill prevention plans are dated 2009; the same pre-blowout plans that have been widely ridiculed for exaggerating spill response capabilities and borrowing liberally from Arctic spill response plans. Spot any walruses lounging on Mississippi beaches lately?

If that weren’t enough to curl your toes, Transocean, the incompetent owner of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig, recently announced that it is awarding its top executives bonuses for achieving the “best year in safety.” The company filing about the bonuses stated: “Notwithstanding the tragic loss of life in the Gulf of Mexico, we achieved an exemplary statistical safety record.”

If an exploding rig is “exemplary,” we would be curious to know what Transocean regards as mediocre.

It seems as if the lesson learned from the worst oil spill in U.S. history is throw caution to the wind and don’t worry about the consequences.

Meanwhile, alarming numbers of dead dolphins and sea turtles are washing up along the Gulf Coast. Researchers fear that the long-term ecological damage from the spill may be far greater than previously thought.

As disturbing as all of this is, perhaps the most troubling is the strong push by the Alaska congressional delegation and numerous Western or Gulf state Republicans to rush drilling in the remote waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska’s northern coast—without any reliable indication whatsoever that a spill in these arctic waters could be effectively responded to.

These are among the world’s most pristine and productive ocean areas. They support vital populations of marine mammals, including seals, walruses, and whales. The Chukchi is home to roughly half of America’s polar bear population. Millions of seabirds migrate to these food-rich waters each year.

A recent memorandum produced by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), projects that a blowout in these icy waters would spill approximately 61,000 barrels a day—similar to the Gulf spill. That is where the similarities end.

The spill response assets available in the Gulf were as massive as they were inadequate.

The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are located more than 900 miles from the nearest U.S. Coast Guard base, there are only a few small airstrips, winter response in subzero darkness would be impossible, ice cover most of the year would hinder containment and cleanup, and bad weather could ground workers for weeks any time of the year.

The report issued by the Gulf oil spill commission noted “serious concerns about Arctic oil-spill response, containment, and search and rescue,” and recommended that before the federal government issues any drilling permits, it must ensure that oil spill containment and response capabilities have been “satisfactorily demonstrated in the Arctic.” That is a pretty high bar.

The likelihood that oil spill clean-up can be successfully demonstrated in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas under all likely weather and sea conditions is highly unlikely, as is the prospect that Congress will provide the Coast Guard the necessary resources to station and maintain an appropriate amount of response equipment nearby.

But heck, who needs spill response capability when our elected leaders are willing to so completely throw caution to the wind in their insatiable quest for every last drop of domestic oil. Apparently, no cost is too great.

Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, wrote:

Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director and regulator, the standard of them all.

As we sit here a year after the nation’s worst oil spill, prudence is sadly absent from those charged with overseeing oil drilling and managing America’s marine waters, as are many other virtues—political and moral.


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10 Comments so far ↓

  • joemarier

    You know what? Burke is overrated. Nobody ever quotes him except when they’re trying to convince conservatives to acquiesce to their sworn enemies against their interests yet again. You know why that is? Because Burke wasn’t a conservative. He was a Whig that thought that the French Revolution was a bridge too far. So some of his writings are conservative, some aren’t. That’s all.

  • djenkins

    joemarier, it is pretty bold to state that the person most widely regarded as the father of modern conservatism was not conservative. Would you also claim that Russell Kirk was not a conservative? That sounds like the views of a libertarian who is trying to redefine conservatism to fit their own ideology.

    Besides, what about Burke’s quote do you not like? Do you not agree that prudence is conservative? If that is the case, then you would be about as conservative as Jane Fonda was in the 1960s.

    • joemarier

      Russell Kirk was certainly a conservative, but keep in mind his book is titled “…from Burke to ELIOT.” It’ pretty sensible to question the latter, why not the former? Our mutual editor wrote about how Kirk tried to recreate the History of Conservatism in a rather synthetic way, and I think Kirk’s overemphasis on Burke was a part of that.

      Prudence is a cardinal virtue. But no, it’s not THE cardinal virtue. That would be charity.

      An appropriate thought for today…

  • hisgirlfriday

    As someone for whom the derisive moniker of a “Whig who thought the French Revolution was a bridge too far” isn’t actually an insult, I have honestly never been able to understand what is conservative about the current doctrinaire “conservative” position on the environment.

    I understand why someone who is a LIBERTARIAN would be against any limits of offshore drilling and want to abolish the EPA and want to stop any and all environmental regulations, but a CONSERVATIVE?

    What is conservative about saying that the instant gratification to oil companies of drilling now is more important than allowing drilling only after considering and balancing the short-term and long-term interests of all parties including folks in the tourism and fishing businesses and home and property-owners along the Gulf?

    What is being conserved when you give oil companies a green light to suck out all the profits they can from the Gulf of Mexico with no concern for how the government and individuals might be stuck picking up the tab if/when the oil companies screw up?

    Presidents Nixon and George H.W. Bush did amazing things to conserve the environment in this country. Much much much more than liberal Democrats could ever dream of doing. Things conservatives should own and embrace and take credit for having been a part of to conserve and preserve our national resources, national lands and waters and national wildlife. Nixon and Bush didn’t do these things because they were treehuggers, but because they wanted to protect and preserve the America that they had growing up and ensure that it and all its resources and beauty and economic potential was there to be passed on to the next generation.

    Yet supposed “conservatives”, corrupted by oil campaign contributions, seem to have forgotten all that and chosen to throw away their impeccable legacy on all this. It makes no sense to me. And this legacy seems to be another example of something that supposed “conservatives” have failed to conserve and preserve.

    • joemarier

      Point of clarification: I didn’t mean that as an insult, I was trying to draw a useful distinction. Like everyone at this site, I’m not entirely satisfied with the state of conservatism. Unlike everyone at this site, I’m not sure if we should dissolve the coalition and elect another — abandon our attempts at improving the livelihoods of those in natural-resources states in an attempt to compete for the votes of the renewable-energy researchers centered around college campuses. Nixon and HW’s policies were aimed at placating Democratic congresses while preserving the biggest of the corporations that served America’s energy needs (and it was the smaller firms that paid the price.) More later, maybe.

  • balconesfault

    But heck, who needs spill response capability when our elected leaders are willing to so completely throw caution to the wind in their insatiable quest for every last drop of domestic oil.

    Let’s be honest – our elected leaders are acting on OUR insatiable quest for every last drop of oil, and political winds that blow hard against anyone trying to regulate drilling (in Pennsylvania the new Teaparty Governor has declared that all well inspectors in the Marcellus Shale must have violation reports approved by the politically appointed Secretary before they can be logged). Americans are still deluded by the idea that more domestic drilling will lead to significantly lower US gasoline prices. And they vote what they think is in the best interest of their wallets … even if it’s a complete charade.

  • Stewardship

    hisgirldfriday. You hit the nail on the head. Conservation is conservative. But,coincident to the rise of Newt in 1994, talk radio redefined “conservative.” Essentially, they substituted the definition of “libertarian” for conservative. Now, Ditto-heads across America actually believe and are committed to an erroneous definition. Drives me nuts.

  • Stewardship

    hisgirlfriday. You hit the nail on the head. Conservation is conservative. But,coincident to the rise of Newt in 1994, talk radio redefined “conservative.” Essentially, they substituted the definition of “libertarian” for conservative. Now, Ditto-heads across America actually believe and are committed to an erroneous definition. Drives me nuts.

    • joemarier

      I don’t think that domestic drilling will lower prices significantly. In fact, I hope it doesn’t.

      Low commodities prices do as much to kill natural-resources development as environmentalism does, if not more. They feed on each other, in fact. If commodities prices stay relatively high, then good for the states that provide us with scarce goods. As things are, we book consulting fees in Brazil for our industrial knowledge-work, and Brazil books the spread on the oil they extract. Meanwhile, in the US, unemployment stays high and GDP doesn’t grow fast enough. This is a problem — yes, one I find much more pressing than the threat to coastal cities from higher temperatures come 2050.

      This has an effect on the deficit too. I’ve been obsessed with the flow of funds identity recently. Net private savings = government deficit + trade surplus. You can increase taxes to reduce the deficit, but that’s another term for decreasing net private savings at a time when private citizens need more savings, not less. But, if ending the regulatory incentives to de-diversify our economy into a pure knowledge work play (so to speak) ends up improving the balance of trade, which I think it well might, then we get to reduce the deficit without raising taxes.

      The only way my scheme won’t work is this: if the US just doesn’t have comparative advantage in the natural-resources sector, then yes, it makes sense to shut it down, let the West lie fallow and put the entire population of potential mining and drilling engineers in cubicle farms. But I just don’t think that’s the case.

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