"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘BP’

Gulf Oil Spill: A Hole In The World

In Uncategorized on June 24, 2010 at 2:25 pm

BP cannot plug the hole in the Earth that it made. Obama cannot order fish species to survive, or brown pelicans not to go extinct (no matter whose ass he kicks). No amount of money – not BP's recently pledged $20bn (£13.5bn), not $100bn – can replace a culture that has lost its roots. And while our politicians and corporate leaders have yet to come to terms with these humbling truths, the people whose air, water and livelihoods have been contaminated are losing their illusions fast.

Oldspeak: “This Gulf coast crisis is about many things – corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it’s about this: our culture’s excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us.”

From Naomi Klein @ The Guardian UK:

Everyone gathered for the town hall meeting had been repeatedly instructed to show civility to the gentlemen from BP and the federal government. These fine folks had made time in their busy schedules to come to a high school gymnasium on a Tuesday night in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, one of many coastal communities where brown poison was slithering through the marshes, part of what has come to be described as the largest environmental disaster in US history.

“Speak to others the way you would want to be spoken to,” the chair of the meeting pleaded one last time before opening the floor for questions.

And for a while the crowd, mostly made up of fishing families, showed remarkable restraint. They listened patiently to Larry Thomas, a genial BP public relations flack, as he told them that he was committed to “doing better” to process their claims for lost revenue – then passed all the details off to a markedly less friendly subcontractor. They heard out the suit from the Environmental Protection Agency as he informed them that, contrary to what they have read about the lack of testing and the product being banned in Britain, the chemical dispersant being sprayed on the oil in massive quantities was really perfectly safe.

But patience started running out by the third time Ed Stanton, a coast guard captain, took to the podium to reassure them that “the coast guard intends to make sure that BP cleans it up”.

“Put it in writing!” someone shouted out. By now the air conditioning had shut itself off and the coolers of Budweiser were running low. A shrimper named Matt O’Brien approached the mic. “We don’t need to hear this anymore,” he declared, hands on hips. It didn’t matter what assurances they were offered because, he explained, “we just don’t trust you guys!” And with that, such a loud cheer rose up from the floor you’d have thought the Oilers (the unfortunately named school football team) had scored a touchdown.

The showdown was cathartic, if nothing else. For weeks residents had been subjected to a barrage of pep talks and extravagant promises coming from Washington, Houston and London. Every time they turned on their TVs, there was the BP boss, Tony Hayward, offering his solemn word that he would “make it right”. Or else it was President Barack Obama expressing his absolute confidence that his administration would “leave the Gulf coast in better shape than it was before”, that he was “making sure” it “comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis”.

It all sounded great. But for people whose livelihoods put them in intimate contact with the delicate chemistry of the wetlands, it also sounded completely ridiculous, painfully so. Once the oil coats the base of the marsh grass, as it had already done just a few miles from here, no miracle machine or chemical concoction could safely get it out. You can skim oil off the surface of open water, and you can rake it off a sandy beach, but an oiled marsh just sits there, slowly dying. The larvae of countless species for which the marsh is a spawning ground – shrimp, crab, oysters and fin fish – will be poisoned.

It was already happening. Earlier that day, I travelled through nearby marshes in a shallow water boat. Fish were jumping in waters encircled by white boom, the strips of thick cotton and mesh BP is using to soak up the oil. The circle of fouled material seemed to be tightening around the fish like a noose. Nearby, a red-winged blackbird perched atop a 2 metre (7ft) blade of oil-contaminated marsh grass. Death was creeping up the cane; the small bird may as well have been standing on a lit stick of dynamite.

And then there is the grass itself, or the Roseau cane, as the tall sharp blades are called. If oil seeps deeply enough into the marsh, it will not only kill the grass above ground but also the roots. Those roots are what hold the marsh together, keeping bright green land from collapsing into the Mississippi River delta and the Gulf of Mexico. So not only do places like Plaquemines Parish stand to lose their fisheries, but also much of the physical barrier that lessens the intensity of fierce storms like hurricane Katrina. Which could mean losing everything.

How long will it take for an ecosystem this ravaged to be “restored and made whole” as Obama’s interior secretary has pledged to do? It’s not at all clear that such a thing is remotely possible, at least not in a time frame we can easily wrap our heads around. The Alaskan fisheries have yet to fully recover from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and some species of fish never returned. Government scientists now estimate that as much as a Valdez-worth of oil may be entering the Gulf coastal waters every four days. An even worse prognosis emerges from the 1991 Gulf war spill, when an estimated 11m barrels of oil were dumped into the Persian Gulf – the largest spill ever. That oil entered the marshland and stayed there, burrowing deeper and deeper thanks to holes dug by crabs. It’s not a perfect comparison, since so little clean-up was done, but according to a study conducted 12 years after the disaster, nearly 90% of the impacted muddy salt marshes and mangroves were still profoundly damaged.

We do know this. Far from being “made whole,” the Gulf coast, more than likely, will be diminished. Its rich waters and crowded skies will be less alive than they are today. The physical space many communities occupy on the map will also shrink, thanks to erosion. And the coast’s legendary culture will contract and wither. The fishing families up and down the coast do not just gather food, after all. They hold up an intricate network that includes family tradition, cuisine, music, art and endangered languages – much like the roots of grass holding up the land in the marsh. Without fishing, these unique cultures lose their root system, the very ground on which they stand. (BP, for its part, is well aware of the limits of recovery. The company’s Gulf of Mexico regional oil spill response plan specifically instructs officials not to make “promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal”. Which is no doubt why its officials consistently favour folksy terms like “make it right”.)

If Katrina pulled back the curtain on the reality of racism in America, the BP disaster pulls back the curtain on something far more hidden: how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the awesome, intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle. BP cannot plug the hole in the Earth that it made. Obama cannot order fish species to survive, or brown pelicans not to go extinct (no matter whose ass he kicks). No amount of money – not BP’s recently pledged $20bn (£13.5bn), not $100bn – can replace a culture that has lost its roots. And while our politicians and corporate leaders have yet to come to terms with these humbling truths, the people whose air, water and livelihoods have been contaminated are losing their illusions fast.

“Everything is dying,” a woman said as the town hall meeting was finally coming to a close. “How can you honestly tell us that our Gulf is resilient and will bounce back? Because not one of you up here has a hint as to what is going to happen to our Gulf. You sit up here with a straight face and act like you know when you don’t know.”

This Gulf coast crisis is about many things – corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it’s about this: our culture’s excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us. But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine. During Thursday’s congressional testimony, Hayward said: “The best minds and the deepest expertise are being brought to bear” on the crisis, and that, “with the possible exception of the space programme in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the gathering of a larger, more technically proficient team in one place in peacetime.” And yet, in the face of what the geologist Jill Schneiderman has described as “Pandora’s well”, they are like the men at the front of that gymnasium: they act like they know, but they don’t know.

BP’s mission statement

In the arc of human history, the notion that nature is a machine for us to re-engineer at will is a relatively recent conceit. In her ground-breaking 1980 book The Death of Nature, the environmental historian Carolyn Merchant reminded readers that up until the 1600s, the Earth was alive, usually taking the form of a mother. Europeans – like indigenous people the world over – believed the planet to be a living organism, full of life-giving powers but also wrathful tempers. There were, for this reason, strong taboos against actions that would deform and desecrate “the mother”, including mining.

The metaphor changed with the unlocking of some (but by no means all) of nature’s mysteries during the scientific revolution of the 1600s. With nature now cast as a machine, devoid of mystery or divinity, its component parts could be dammed, extracted and remade with impunity. Nature still sometimes appeared as a woman, but one easily dominated and subdued. Sir Francis Bacon best encapsulated the new ethos when he wrote in the 1623 De dignitate et augmentis scientiarum that nature is to be “put in constraint, moulded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man”.

Those words may as well have been BP’s corporate mission statement. Boldly inhabiting what the company called “the energy frontier”, it dabbled in synthesising methane-producing microbes and announced that “a new area of investigation” would be geoengineering. And of course it bragged that, at its Tiber prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, it now had “the deepest well ever drilled by the oil and gas industry” – as deep under the ocean floor as jets fly overhead.

Imagining and preparing for what would happen if these experiments in altering the building blocks of life and geology went wrong occupied precious little space in the corporate imagination. As we have all discovered, after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, the company had no systems in place to effectively respond to this scenario. Explaining why it did not have even the ultimately unsuccessful containment dome waiting to be activated on shore, a BP spokesman, Steve Rinehart, said: “I don’t think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we’re faced with now.” Apparently, it “seemed inconceivable” that the blowout preventer would ever fail – so why prepare?

This refusal to contemplate failure clearly came straight from the top. A year ago, Hayward told a group of graduate students at Stanford University that he has a plaque on his desk that reads: “If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?” Far from being a benign inspirational slogan, this was actually an accurate description of how BP and its competitors behaved in the real world. In recent hearings on Capitol Hill, congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts grilled representatives from the top oil and gas companies on the revealing ways in which they had allocated resources. Over three years, they had spent “$39bn to explore for new oil and gas. Yet, the average investment in research and development for safety, accident prevention and spill response was a paltry $20m a year.”

These priorities go a long way towards explaining why the initial exploration plan that BP submitted to the federal government for the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon well reads like a Greek tragedy about human hubris. The phrase “little risk” appears five times. Even if there is a spill, BP confidently predicts that, thanks to “proven equipment and technology”, adverse affects will be minimal. Presenting nature as a predictable and agreeable junior partner (or perhaps subcontractor), the report cheerfully explains that should a spill occur, “Currents and microbial degradation would remove the oil from the water column or dilute the constituents to background levels”. The effects on fish, meanwhile, “would likely be sublethal” because of “the capability of adult fish and shellfish to avoid a spill [and] to metabolise hydrocarbons”. (In BP’s telling, rather than a dire threat, a spill emerges as an all-you-can-eat buffet for aquatic life.)

Best of all, should a major spill occur, there is, apparently, “little risk of contact or impact to the coastline” because of the company’s projected speedy response (!) and “due to the distance [of the rig] to shore” – about 48 miles (77km). This is the most astonishing claim of all. In a gulf that often sees winds of more than 70km an hour, not to mention hurricanes, BP had so little respect for the ocean’s capacity to ebb and flow, surge and heave, that it did not think oil could make a paltry 77km trip. (Last week, a shard of the exploded Deepwater Horizon showed up on a beach in Florida, 306km away.)

None of this sloppiness would have been possible, however, had BP not been making its predictions to a political class eager to believe that nature had indeed been mastered. Some, like Republican Lisa Murkowski, were more eager than others. The Alaskan senator was so awe-struck by the industry’s four-dimensional seismic imaging that she proclaimed deep-sea drilling to have reached the very height of controlled artificiality. “It’s better than Disneyland in terms of how you can take technologies and go after a resource that is thousands of years old and do so in an environmentally sound way,” she told the Senate energy committee just seven months ago.

Drilling without thinking has of course been Republican party policy since May 2008. With gas prices soaring to unprecedented heights, that’s when the conservative leader Newt Gingrich unveiled the slogan “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” – with an emphasis on the now. The wildly popular campaign was a cry against caution, against study, against measured action. In Gingrich’s telling, drilling at home wherever the oil and gas might be – locked in Rocky Mountain shale, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and deep offshore – was a surefire way to lower the price at the pump, create jobs, and kick Arab ass all at once. In the face of this triple win, caring about the environment was for sissies: as senator Mitch McConnell put it, “in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas, they think oil rigs are pretty”. By the time the infamous “Drill Baby Drill” Republican national convention rolled around, the party base was in such a frenzy for US-made fossil fuels, they would have bored under the convention floor if someone had brought a big enough drill.

Obama, eventually, gave in, as he invariably does. With cosmic bad timing, just three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon blew up, the president announced he would open up previously protected parts of the country to offshore drilling. The practice was not as risky as he had thought, he explained. “Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.” That wasn’t enough for Sarah Palin, however, who sneered at the Obama administration’s plans to conduct more studies before drilling in some areas. “My goodness, folks, these areas have been studied to death,” she told the Southern Republican leadership conference in New Orleans, now just 11 days before the blowout. “Let’s drill, baby, drill, not stall, baby, stall!” And there was much rejoicing.

In his congressional testimony, Hayward said: “We and the entire industry will learn from this terrible event.” And one might well imagine that a catastrophe of this magnitude would indeed instil BP executives and the “Drill Now” crowd with a new sense of humility. There are, however, no signs that this is the case. The response to the disaster – at the corporate and governmental levels – has been rife with the precise brand of arrogance and overly sunny predictions that created the disaster in the first place.

The ocean is big, she can take it, we heard from Hayward in the early days. While spokesman John Curry insisted that hungry microbes would consume whatever oil was in the water system, because “nature has a way of helping the situation”. But nature has not been playing along. The deep-sea gusher has bust out of all BP’s top hats, containment domes, and junk shots. The ocean’s winds and currents have made a mockery of the lightweight booms BP has laid out to absorb the oil. “We told them,” said Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oysters Association. “The oil’s gonna go over the booms or underneath the bottom.” Indeed it did. The marine biologist Rick Steiner, who has been following the clean up closely, estimates that “70% or 80% of the booms are doing absolutely nothing at all”.

And then there are the controversial chemical dispersants: more than 1.3m gallons dumped with the company’s trademark “what could go wrong?” attitude. As the angry residents at the Plaquemines Parish town hall rightly point out, few tests had been conducted, and there is scant research about what this unprecedented amount of dispersed oil will do to marine life. Nor is there a way to clean up the toxic mixture of oil and chemicals below the surface. Yes, fast multiplying microbes do devour underwater oil – but in the process they also absorb the water’s oxygen, creating a whole new threat to marine life.

BP had even dared to imagine that it could prevent unflattering images of oil-covered beaches and birds from escaping the disaster zone. When I was on the water with a TV crew, for instance, we were approached by another boat whose captain asked, “”Y’all work for BP?” When we said no, the response – in the open ocean – was “You can’t be here then”. But of course these heavy-handed tactics, like all the others, have failed. There is simply too much oil in too many places. “You cannot tell God’s air where to flow and go, and you can’t tell water where to flow and go,” I was told by Debra Ramirez. It was a lesson she had learned from living in Mossville, Louisiana, surrounded by 14 emission-spewing petrochemical plants, and watching illness spread from neighbour to neighbour.

Human limitation has been the one constant of this catastrophe. After two months, we still have no idea how much oil is flowing, nor when it will stop. The company’s claim that it will complete relief wells by the end of August – repeated by Obama in his Oval Office address – is seen by many scientists as a bluff. The procedure is risky and could fail, and there is a real possibility that the oil could continue to leak for years.

The flow of denial shows no sign of abating either. Louisiana politicians indignantly oppose Obama’s temporary freeze on deepwater drilling, accusing him of killing the one big industry left standing now that fishing and tourism are in crisis. Palin mused on Facebook that “no human endeavour is ever without risk”, while Texas Republican congressman John Culberson described the disaster as a “statistical anomaly”. By far the most sociopathic reaction, however, comes from veteran Washington commentator Llewellyn King: rather than turning away from big engineering risks, we should pause in “wonder that we can build machines so remarkable that they can lift the lid off the underworld”.

Make the bleeding stop

Thankfully, many are taking a very different lesson from the disaster, standing not in wonder at humanity’s power to reshape nature, but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; that it is part of us. And thanks to BP’s live camera feed, we can all watch the Earth’s guts gush forth, in real time, 24 hours a day.

John Wathen, a conservationist with the Waterkeeper Alliance, was one of the few independent observers to fly over the spill in the early days of the disaster. After filming the thick red streaks of oil that the coast guard politely refers to as “rainbow sheen”, he observed what many had felt: “The Gulf seems to be bleeding.” This imagery comes up again and again in conversations and interviews. Monique Harden, an environmental rights lawyer in New Orleans, refuses to call the disaster an “oil spill” and instead says, “we are haemorrhaging”. Others speak of the need to “make the bleeding stop”. And I was personally struck, flying over the stretch of ocean where the Deepwater Horizon sank with the US Coast Guard, that the swirling shapes the oil made in the ocean waves looked remarkably like cave drawings: a feathery lung gasping for air, eyes staring upwards, a prehistoric bird. Messages from the deep.

And this is surely the strangest twist in the Gulf coast saga: it seems to be waking us up to the reality that the Earth never was a machine. After 400 years of being declared dead, and in the middle of so much death, the Earth is coming alive.

The experience of following the oil’s progress through the ecosystem is a kind of crash course in deep ecology. Every day we learn more about how what seems to be a terrible problem in one isolated part of the world actually radiates out in ways most of us could never have imagined. One day we learn that the oil could reach Cuba – then Europe. Next we hear that fishermen all the way up the Atlantic in Prince Edward Island, Canada, are worried because the Bluefin tuna they catch off their shores are born thousands of miles away in those oil-stained Gulf waters. And we learn, too, that for birds, the Gulf coast wetlands are the equivalent of a busy airport hub – everyone seems to have a stopover: 110 species of migratory songbirds and 75% of all migratory US waterfowl.

It’s one thing to be told by an incomprehensible chaos theorist that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. It’s another to watch chaos theory unfold before your eyes. Carolyn Merchant puts the lesson like this: “The problem as BP has tragically and belatedly discovered is that nature as an active force cannot be so confined.” Predictable outcomes are unusual within ecological systems, while “unpredictable, chaotic events [are] usual”. And just in case we still didn’t get it, a few days ago, a bolt of lightning struck a BP ship like an exclamation mark, forcing it to suspend its containment efforts. And don’t even mention what a hurricane would do to BP’s toxic soup.

There is, it must be stressed, something uniquely twisted about this particular path to enlightenment. They say that Americans learn where foreign countries are by bombing them. Now it seems we are all learning about nature’s circulatory systems by poisoning them.

In the late 90s, an isolated indigenous group in Colombia captured world headlines with an almost Avatar-esque conflict. From their remote home in the Andean cloud forests, the U’wa let it be known that if Occidental Petroleum carried out plans to drill for oil on their territory, they would commit mass ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff. Their elders explained that oil is part of ruiria, “the blood of Mother Earth”. They believe that all life, including their own, flows from ruiria, so pulling out the oil would bring on their destruction. (Oxy eventually withdrew from the region, saying there wasn’t as much oil as it had previously thought.)

Virtually all indigenous cultures have myths about gods and spirits living in the natural world – in rocks, mountains, glaciers, forests – as did European culture before the scientific revolution. Katja Neves, an anthropologist at Concordia University, points out that the practice serves a practical purpose. Calling the Earth “sacred” is another way of expressing humility in the face of forces we do not fully comprehend. When something is sacred, it demands that we proceed with caution. Even awe.

If we are absorbing this lesson at long last, the implications could be profound. Public support for increased offshore drilling is dropping precipitously, down 22% from the peak of the “Drill Now” frenzy. The issue is not dead, however. It is only a matter of time before the Obama administration announces that, thanks to ingenious new technology and tough new regulations, it is now perfectly safe to drill in the deep sea, even in the Arctic, where an under-ice clean up would be infinitely more complex than the one underway in the Gulf. But perhaps this time we won’t be so easily reassured, so quick to gamble with the few remaining protected havens.

Same goes for geoengineering. As climate change negotiations wear on, we should be ready to hear more from Dr Steven Koonin, Obama’s undersecretary of energy for science. He is one of the leading proponents of the idea that climate change can be combated with techno tricks like releasing sulphate and aluminium particles into the atmosphere – and of course it’s all perfectly safe, just like Disneyland! He also happens to be BP’s former chief scientist, the man who just 15 months ago was still overseeing the technology behind BP’s supposedly safe charge into deepwater drilling. Maybe this time we will opt not to let the good doctor experiment with the physics and chemistry of the Earth, and choose instead to reduce our consumption and shift to renewable energies that have the virtue that, when they fail, they fail small. As US comedian Bill Maher put it, “You know what happens when windmills collapse into the sea? A splash.”

The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of Hayward’s “If you knew you could not fail” credo, the precautionary principle holds that “when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health” we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation cheques. “You act like you know, but you don’t know.”


The History of BP/British Petroleum and Its Role in the 1953 Iran Coup

In Uncategorized on June 15, 2010 at 7:58 am

Oldspeak: “A Looooog time ago, in a land far far away there was democratically elected leader who had the gall to assert that Iranians should profit most from their oil….  A look at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s role in the 1953 CIA coup to overthrow Iran’s popular progressive prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh.”

From Democracy Now:

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to America’s role in a changing Middle East. Israel has set up an internal inquiry into its deadly attack last month on the Gaza-bound flotilla of humanitarian aid ships. Nine Turkish citizens, one who also was a US citizen, were killed when Israeli commandos attacked a ship in international waters last month. Israel rejected a UN proposal for an international probe into the incident but has agreed to include two foreign non-voting observers in its own inquiry.
The United States has hailed the decision as, quote, “an important step forward.” But Turkey’s foreign minister said, quote, “We have no trust at all that Israel, a country that has carried out such an attack on a civilian convoy in international waters, will conduct an impartial investigation.” Turkish-Israeli relations appear to be at an all-time low following the flotilla attack.

Meanwhile, Turkey, along with Brazil, negotiated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran and then voted against a UN Security Council resolution last week that imposed another round of sanctions on Iran.

Well, award-winning journalist and bestselling author Stephen Kinzer is out with a new book that looks back into history to make some sense of these shifting alliances in the Middle East and to chart a new vision for US foreign policy in the region. The former New York Timescorrespondent is the author of a number of books, including All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror andOverthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. His latest book, out this week, is called Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future. Stephen Kinzer joins me now from Washington, DC.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Stephen.

STEPHEN KINZER: Great to be with you again, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, I want to start where you—descriptions and analysis you gave in your previous books, which you continue inReset, and it has to do with BP. Before we get to Turkey and Iran and Israel currently, I wanted to go back in time. President Obama has gone down to Mississippi, and he’s going to be in the Gulf Coast for a few days. But there’s very little discussed about BP’s history, and I’m wondering if you could start with us there.

STEPHEN KINZER: The history of the company we now call BP over the last hundred years has really traced the arc of global transnational capitalism. This company began as a kind of a wildcatting operation in Iran back in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was very entrepreneurial and risk-taking, and they had a bunch of geologists running around in these very forbidding steppes and deserts, and finally they struck what was the greatest find up to that time in the history of the oil industry. They were the ones who discovered that Iran was sitting on an ocean of oil. And then they decided they would take it. Under a corrupt deal that they had struck with a few representatives of the old declining Iranian monarchy, all of whom had been paid off by the company, this concession, which later became known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, guaranteed itself, or won the right to own, all of Iran’s oil. So, nobody in Iran had any right to drill for oil or extract oil or sell oil.

Then, soon after that find was made, the British government decided to buy the company. So the Parliament passed a law and bought 51 percent of that company. And all during the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, the entire standard of living that people in England enjoyed was supported by oil from Iran. All the trucks and jeeps in Britain were being run on Iranian oil. Factories all over Britain were being funded by oil from Iran. The Royal Navy, which projected British power all over the world, was run 100 percent on oil from Iran. So that became a fundamental foundation of British life.

And then, after World War II, when the winds of nationalism and anti-colonialism were blowing throughout the developing world, Iranians developed this idea: we’ve got to take our oil back. And that was the general—the kind of national passion that brought to power Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was the most prominent figure in the democratic period of Iran during the late ’40s and early ’50s. It was Mosaddegh’s desire, supported by a unanimous vote of the democratically elected parliament of Iran, to nationalize what was then the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. They carried out the nationalization.

The British and their partners in the United States fiercely resisted this. And when they were unable to prevent it from happening, they organized the overthrow of Mosaddegh in 1953. So that overthrow not only produced the end of the Mosaddegh government, but the end of democracy in Iran, and that set off all these other following consequences. The Shah ruled for twenty-five years with increasing repression. His rule produced the explosion of the late ’70s that produced the Islamic regime. So, it was to protect the interests of the oil company we now know as BP that the CIA and the British Secret Service joined together to overthrow the democratic government in Iran and produce all the consequences we’ve seen in Iran over the last half-century.

AMY GOODMAN: And that involved both Dulles brothers—people often fly into Dulles Airport—John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and also Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson.

STEPHEN KINZER: Yeah, history is kind of winking at us from that episode. It’s quite an interesting quirk that Theodore Roosevelt, who essentially brought the United States into the regime change era around the very beginning of the twentieth century, wound up having a grandson who began the modern age of intervention. Bear in mind that Iran was the first country where the CIA went in to overthrow a government. When Teddy Roosevelt was overthrowing governments, there was no CIA. So each of them opened a chapter in the history of American interventionism.

AMY GOODMAN: And why—before we move forward now, why did the US intervene on behalf of a British company, what later became British Petroleum, or BP?

STEPHEN KINZER: There were several reasons for it. Part of it had to do with the desire for transatlantic solidarity. But I really think there were two key reasons. One was that the Americans persuaded themselves that they had to fight communism somewhere in the world. That was the idea with which Dulles and Eisenhower came into power in 1953, that they would no longer stick with the strategy of containment of communism, but they were going to a new strategy of rollback. But once they got into power, they were thinking, “How are we going to roll back communism? We can’t invade the Soviet Union. We’re not going to bomb China.”

And here is where the other piece came in. The British were very eager to overthrow Mosaddegh in order to get back their oil company. But when they presented the plan to Dulles and Eisenhower, the agent who they sent to Washington, who has later written his memoirs, did something very clever. He decided it’s not going to work if I tell the Americans, “Please overthrow Mosaddegh so we can have our oil company back.” The Americans won’t respond to that. They won’t care enough. They’ll be afraid of the precedent of a government taking over a corporation that produces a resource in a poor country. That’s a bad precedent for John Foster Dulles and Americans, just as much as it is for the British. But what the Americans are really concerned about at this moment in the early ’50s is communism, so let’s tell them that Mosaddegh is leading Iran toward communism. Now, Mosaddegh was an elderly aristocrat who despised all socialist and Marxist ideas, but that was just a detail. He was able to be portrayed as a person who was weak enough so that later on his fall might produce an attempt by communists to take over in Iran.

So it was this combination of wanting to make sure that the example was not given in the world that nationalist governments could just nationalize companies owned by rich countries, and secondly, anybody who could come into the American scope as being possibly not even sympathetic to communism, but creating a situation in which, after he was gone, there might be instability that could lead to a communist government, would wind up being a target of the US.

The Spill, The Scandal And The President

In Uncategorized on June 14, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Oldspeak: What a sublime cluster fuck. On the eve of his latest speech on the BP disaster, the inside story of how Obama failed to crack down on the corruption of the Bush years – and let the world’s most dangerous oil company get away with murder.  Most troubling of all, Obama has allowed BP to continue deep-sea production at its Atlantis rig – one of the world’s largest oil platforms. Capable of drawing 200,000 barrels a day from the seafloor, Atlantis is located only 150 miles off the coast of Louisiana, in waters nearly 2,000 feet deeper than BP drilled at Deepwater Horizon. According to congressional documents, the platform lacks required engineering certification for as much as 90 percent of its subsea components – a flaw that internal BP documents reveal could lead to “catastrophic” errors.”

From Tim Dickenson @ Rolling Stone:

On May 27th, more than a month into the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, Barack Obama strode to the podium in the East Room of the White House. For weeks, the administration had been insisting that BP alone was to blame for the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf – and the ongoing failure to stop the massive leak. “They have the technical expertise to plug the hole,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had said only six days earlier. “It is their responsibility.” The president, Gibbs added, lacked the authority to play anything more than a supervisory role – a curious line of argument from an administration that has reserved the right to assassinate American citizens abroad and has nationalized much of the auto industry. “If BP is not accomplishing the task, can you just federalize it?” a reporter asked. “No,” Gibbs replied.

Now, however, the president was suddenly standing up to take command of the cleanup effort. “In case you were wondering who’s responsible,” Obama told the nation, “I take responsibility.” Sounding chastened, he acknowledged that his administration had failed to adequately reform the Minerals Management Service, the scandal-ridden federal agency that for years had essentially allowed the oil industry to self-regulate. “There wasn’t sufficient urgency,” the president said. “Absolutely I take responsibility for that.” He also admitted that he had been too credulous of the oil giants: “I was wrong in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.” He unveiled a presidential commission to investigate the disaster, discussed the resignation of the head of MMS, and extended a moratorium on new deepwater drilling. “The buck,” he reiterated the next day on the sullied Louisiana coastline, “stops with me.”

Meet Obama’s sheriff, Ken Salazar.

What didn’t stop was the gusher. Hours before the president’s press conference, an ominous plume of oil six miles wide and 22 miles long was discovered snaking its way toward Mobile Bay from BP’s wellhead next to the wreckage of its Deepwater Horizon rig. Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. commander overseeing the cleanup, framed the spill explicitly as an invasion: “The enemy is coming ashore,” he said. Louisiana beaches were assaulted by blobs of oil that began to seep beneath the sand; acres of marshland at the “Bird’s Foot,” where the Mississippi meets the Gulf, were befouled by shit-brown crude – a death sentence for wetlands that serve as the cradle for much of the region’s vital marine life. By the time Obama spoke, it was increasingly evident that this was not merely an ecological disaster. It was the most devastating assault on American soil since 9/11.

Like the attacks by Al Qaeda, the disaster in the Gulf was preceded by ample warnings – yet the administration had ignored them. Instead of cracking down on MMS, as he had vowed to do even before taking office, Obama left in place many of the top officials who oversaw the agency’s culture of corruption. He permitted it to rubber-stamp dangerous drilling operations by BP – a firm with the worst safety record of any oil company – with virtually no environmental safeguards, using industry-friendly regulations drafted during the Bush years. He calibrated his response to the Gulf spill based on flawed and misleading estimates from BP – and then deployed his top aides to lowball the flow rate at a laughable 5,000 barrels a day, long after the best science made clear this catastrophe would eclipse the Exxon Valdez.

Meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s most progressive leader ever, Lisa Jackson.

Even after the president’s press conference,Rolling Stone has learned, the administration knew the spill could be far worse than its “best estimate” acknowledged. That same day, the president’s Flow Rate Technical Group – a team of scientists charged with establishing the gusher’s output – announced a new estimate of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels, based on calculations from video of the plume. In fact, according to interviews with team members and scientists familiar with its work, that figure represents the plume group’s minimum estimate. The upper range was not included in their report because scientists analyzing the flow were unable to reach a consensus on how bad it could be. “The upper bound from the plume group, if it had come out, is very high,” says Timothy Crone, a marine geophysicist at Columbia University who has consulted with the government’s team. “That’s why they had resistance internally. We’re talking 100,000 barrels a day.”

The median figure for Crone’s independent calculations is 55,000 barrels a day – the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez every five days. “That’s what the plume team’s numbers show too,” Crone says. A source privy to internal discussions at one of the world’s top oil companies confirms that the industry privately agrees with such estimates. “The industry definitely believes the higher-end values,” the source says. “That’s accurate – if not more than that.” The reason, he adds, is that BP appears to have unleashed one of the 10 most productive wells in the Gulf. “BP screwed up a really big, big find,” the source says. “And if they can’t cap this, it’s not going to blow itself out anytime soon.”

Get your daily dose of political muckraking from Matt Taibbi on the Taibblog.

Even worse, the “moratorium” on drilling announced by the president does little to prevent future disasters. The ban halts exploratory drilling at only 33 deepwater operations, shutting down less than one percent of the total wells in the Gulf. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Cabinet-level official appointed by Obama to rein in the oil industry, boasts that “the moratorium is not a moratorium that will affect production” – which continues at 5,106 wells in the Gulf, including 591 in deep water.

Most troubling of all, the government has allowed BP to continue deep-sea production at its Atlantis rig – one of the world’s largest oil platforms. Capable of drawing 200,000 barrels a day from the seafloor, Atlantis is located only 150 miles off the coast of Louisiana, in waters nearly 2,000 feet deeper than BP drilled at Deepwater Horizon. According to congressional documents, the platform lacks required engineering certification for as much as 90 percent of its subsea components – a flaw that internal BP documents reveal could lead to “catastrophic” errors. In a May 19th letter to Salazar, 26 congressmen called for the rig to be shut down immediately. “We are very concerned,” they wrote, “that the tragedy at Deepwater Horizon could foreshadow an accident at BP Atlantis.”

Tim Dickinson blogs about all the news that fits, from the Beltway and beyond on the National Affairs blog.

The administration’s response to the looming threat? According to an e-mail to a congressional aide from a staff member at MMS, the agency has had “zero contact” with Atlantis about its safety risks since the Deepwater rig went down.

It’s tempting to believe that the Gulf spill, like so many disasters inherited by Obama, was the fault of the Texas oilman who preceded him in office. But, though George W. Bush paved the way for the catastrophe, it was Obama who gave BP the green light to drill. “Bush owns eight years of the mess,” says Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California. “But after more than a year on the job, Salazar owns it too.”

During the Bush years, the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Interior Department charged with safeguarding the environment from the ravages of drilling, descended into rank criminality. According to reports by Interior’s inspector general, MMS staffers were both literally and figuratively in bed with the oil industry. When agency staffers weren’t joining industry employees for coke parties or trips to corporate ski chalets, they were having sex with oil-company officials. But it was American taxpayers and the environment that were getting screwed. MMS managers were awarded cash bonuses for pushing through risky offshore leases, auditors were ordered not to investigate shady deals, and safety staffers routinely accepted gifts from the industry, allegedly even allowing oil companies to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil before tracing over them in pen.

“The oil companies were running MMS during those years,” Bobby Maxwell, a former top auditor with the agency, told Rolling Stone last year. “Whatever they wanted, they got. Nothing was being enforced across the board at MMS.”

Salazar himself has worked hard to foster the impression that the “prior administration” is to blame for the catastrophe. In reality, though, the Obama administration was fully aware from the outset of the need to correct the lapses at MMS that led directly to the disaster in the Gulf. In fact, Obama specifically nominated Salazar – his “great” and “dear” friend – to force the department to “clean up its act.” For too long, Obama declared, Interior has been “seen as an appendage of commercial interests” rather than serving the people. “That’s going to change under Ken Salazar.”

Salazar took over Interior in January 2009, vowing to restore the department’s “respect for scientific integrity.” He immediately traveled to MMS headquarters outside Denver and delivered a beat-down to staffers for their “blatant and criminal conflicts of interest and self-dealing” that had “set one of the worst examples of corruption and abuse in government.” Promising to “set the standard for reform,” Salazar declared, “The American people will know the Minerals Management Service as a defender of the taxpayer. You are the ones who will make special interests play by the rules.” Dressed in his trademark Stetson and bolo tie, Salazar boldly proclaimed, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Salazar’s early moves certainly created the impression that he meant what he said. Within days of taking office, he jettisoned the Bush administration’s plan to open 300 million acres – in Alaska, the Gulf, and up and down both coasts – to offshore drilling. The proposal had been published in the Federal Register literally at midnight on the day that Bush left the White House. Salazar denounced the plan as “a headlong rush of the worst kind,” saying it would have put in place “a process rigged to force hurried decisions based on bad information.” Speaking to Rolling Stone in March 2009, the secretary underscored his commitment to reform. “We have embarked on an ambitious agenda to clean up the mess,” he insisted. “We have the inspector general involved with us in a preventive mode so that the department doesn’t commit the same mistakes of the past.” The crackdown, he added, “goes beyond just codes of ethics.”

Except that it didn’t. Salazar did little to tamp down on the lawlessness at MMS, beyond referring a few employees for criminal prosecution and ending a Bush-era program that allowed oil companies to make their “royalty” payments – the amount they owe taxpayers for extracting a scarce public resource – not in cash but in crude. And instead of putting the brakes on new offshore drilling, Salazar immediately throttled it up to record levels. Even though he had scrapped the Bush plan, Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease in the Gulf in his first year alone – an all-time high. The aggressive leasing came as no surprise, given Salazar’s track record. “This guy has a long, long history of promoting offshore oil drilling – that’s his thing,” says Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “He’s got a highly specific soft spot for offshore oil drilling.” As a senator, Salazar not only steered passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened 8 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, he even criticized President Bush for not forcing oil companies to develop existing leases faster.

Salazar was far less aggressive, however, when it came to making good on his promise to fix MMS. Though he criticized the actions of “a few rotten apples” at the agency, he left long-serving lackeys of the oil industry in charge. “The people that are ethically challenged are the career managers, the people who come up through the ranks,” says a marine biologist who left the agency over the way science was tampered with by top officials. “In order to get promoted at MMS, you better get invested in this pro-development oil culture.” One of the Bush-era managers whom Salazar left in place was John Goll, the agency’s director for Alaska. Shortly after, the Interior secretary announced a reorganization of MMS in the wake of the Gulf disaster, Goll called a staff meeting and served cake decorated with the words “Drill, baby, drill.”

Salazar also failed to remove Chris Oynes, a top MMS official who had been a central figure in a multibillion-dollar scandal that Interior’s inspector general called “a jaw-dropping example of bureaucratic bungling.” In the 1990s, industry lobbyists secured a sweetheart subsidy from Congress: Drillers would pay no royalties on oil extracted in deep water until prices rose above $28 a barrel. But this tripwire was conveniently omitted in Gulf leases overseen by Oynes – a mistake that will let the oil giants pocket as much as $53 billion. Instead of being fired for this fuckup, however, Oynes was promoted by Bush to become associate director for offshore drilling – a position he kept under Salazar until the Gulf disaster hit.

“Employees describe being in Interior – not just MMS, but the other agencies – as the third Bush term,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. “They’re working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?”

The tale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is, at its core, the tale of two blowout preventers: one mechanical, one regulatory. The regulatory blowout preventer failed long before BP ever started to drill – precisely because Salazar kept in place the crooked environmental guidelines the Bush administration implemented to favor the oil industry.

MMS has fully understood the worst-case scenarios for deep-sea oil blowouts for more than a decade. In May 2000, an environmental assessment for deepwater drilling in the Gulf presciently warned that “spill responses may be complicated by the potential for very large magnitude spills (because of the high production rates associated with deepwater wells).” The report noted that the oil industry “has estimated worst-case spill volumes ranging from 5,000 to 116,000 barrels a day for 120 days,” and it even anticipated the underwater plumes of oil that are currently haunting the Gulf: “Oil released subsea (e.g., subsea blowout or pipeline leak) in these deepwater environments could remain submerged for some period of time and travel away from the spill site.” The report ominously concluded, “There are few practical spill-response options for dealing with submerged oil.”

That same month, an MMS research document developed with deepwater drillers – including the company then known as BP Amoco – warned that such a spill could spell the end for offshore operations. The industry could “ill afford a deepwater blowout,” the document cautions, adding that “no single company has the solution” to such a catastrophe. “The real test will come if a deepwater blowout occurs.”

Enter the Bush administration. Rather than heeding such warnings, MMS simply assumed that a big spill couldn’t happen. “There was a complete failure to even contemplate the possibility of a disaster like the one in the Gulf,” says Holly Doremus, an environmental-law expert at the University of California. “In their thinking, a big spill would be something like 5,000 barrels, and the oil wouldn’t even reach the shoreline.” In fact, Bush’s five-year plan for offshore drilling described a “large oil spill” as no more than 1,500 barrels. In April 2007, an environmental assessment covering the area where BP would drill concluded that blowouts were “low probability and low risk,” even though a test funded by MMS had found that blowout preventers failed 28 percent of the time. And an environmental assessment for BP’s lease block concluded that offshore spills “are not expected to damage significantly any wetlands along the Gulf Coast.”

In reality, MMS had little way to assess the risk to wildlife, since a new policy instituted under Bush scrapped environmental analysis and fast-tracked permits. Declaring that oil companies themselves were “in the best position to determine the environmental effects” of drilling, the new rules pre-qualified deep-sea drillers to receive a “categorical exclusion” – an exemption from environmental review that was originally intended to prevent minor projects, like outhouses on hiking trails, from being tied up in red tape. “There’s no analytical component to a cat-ex,” says a former MMS scientist. “You have technicians, not scientists, that are simply checking boxes to make sure all the T’s are crossed. They just cut and paste from previous approvals.”

Nowhere was the absurdity of the policy more evident than in the application that BP submitted for its Deepwater Horizon well only two months after Obama took office. BP claims that a spill is “unlikely” and states that it anticipates “no adverse impacts” to endangered wildlife or fisheries. Should a spill occur, it says, “no significant adverse impacts are expected” for the region’s beaches, wetlands and coastal nesting birds. The company, noting that such elements are “not required” as part of the application, contains no scenario for a potential blowout, and no site-specific plan to respond to a spill. Instead, it cites an Oil Spill Response Plan that it had prepared for the entire Gulf region. Among the sensitive species BP anticipates protecting in the semitropical Gulf? “Walruses” and other cold-water mammals, including sea otters and sea lions. The mistake appears to be the result of a sloppy cut-and-paste job from BP’s drilling plans for the Arctic. Even worse: Among the “primary equipment providers” for “rapid deployment of spill response resources,” BP inexplicably provides the Web address of a Japanese home-shopping network. Such glaring errors expose the 582-page response “plan” as nothing more than a paperwork exercise. “It was clear that nobody read it,” says Ruch, who represents government scientists.

“This response plan is not worth the paper it is written on,” said Rick Steiner, a retired professor of marine science at the University of Alaska who helped lead the scientific response to the Valdez disaster. “Incredibly, this voluminous document never once discusses how to stop a deepwater blowout.”

Scientists like Steiner had urgently tried to alert Obama to the depth of the rot at MMS. “I talked to the transition team,” Steiner says. “I told them that MMS was a disaster and needed to be seriously reformed.” A top-to-bottom restructuring of MMS didn’t require anything more than Ken Salazar’s will: The agency only exists by order of the Interior secretary. “He had full authority to change anything he wanted,” says Rep. Issa, a longtime critic of MMS. “He didn’t use it.” Even though Salazar knew that the environmental risks of offshore drilling had been covered up under Bush, he failed to order new assessments. “They could have said, ‘We cannot conclude there won’t be significant impacts from drilling until we redo those reviews,'” says Brendan Cummings, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the oil industry would have cried foul. And what we’ve seen with Salazar is that when the oil industry squeaks, he retreats.”

Under Salazar, MMS continued to issue categorical exclusions to companies like BP, even when they lacked the necessary permits to protect endangered species. A preliminary review of the BP disaster conducted by scientists with the independent Deepwater Horizon Study Group concludes that MMS failed to enforce a host of environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act. “MMS and Interior are equally responsible for the failures here,” says the former agency scientist. “They weren’t willing to take the regulatory steps that could have prevented this incident.”

Had MMS been following the law, it would never have granted BP a categorical exclusion – which are applicable only to activities that have “no significant effect on the human environment.” At a recent hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse grilled Salazar about Interior’s own handbook on categorical exclusions, which bars their issuance for offshore projects in “relatively untested deep water” or “utilizing new or unusual technology” – standards that Whitehouse called “plainly pertinent” for BP’s rig. “It’s hard for me to see that that’s a determination that could have been made in good faith,” Whitehouse said, noting that the monstrously complex task of drilling for oil a mile beneath the surface of the ocean appeared to have been given less oversight than is required of average Americans rewiring their homes. “Who was watching?”

Not the Interior secretary. Salazar did not even ensure that MMS had a written manual – required under Interior’s own rules – for complying with environmental laws. According to an investigation in March by the Government Accountability Office, MMS managers relied instead on informal “institutional knowledge” – passed down from the Bush administration. The sole written guidance appeared on a website that only provided, according to the report, “one paragraph about assessing environmental impacts of oil and gas activities, not detailed instructions that could lead an analyst through the process of drafting an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.”

“People are being really circumspect, not pointing the finger at Salazar and Obama,” says Rep. Raul Grijalva, who oversees the Interior Department as chair of the House subcommittee on public lands. “But the troublesome point is, the administration knew that it had this rot in the middle of the process on offshore drilling – yet it empowered an already discredited, disgraced agency to essentially be in charge.”

On April 6th of last year, less than a month after BP submitted its application, MMS gave the oil giant the go-ahead to drill in the Gulf without a comprehensive environmental review. The one-page approval put no restrictions on BP, issuing only a mild suggestion that would prove prescient: “Exercise caution while drilling due to indications of shallow gas.”

BP is the last oil company on Earth that Salazar and MMS should have allowed to regulate itself. The firm is implicated in each of the worst oil disasters in American history, dating back to theExxon Valdez in 1989. At the time, BP directed the industry consortium that bungled the cleanup response to Valdez during the fateful early hours of the spill, when the worst of the damage occurred. Vital equipment was buried under snow, no cleanup ship was standing by and no containment barge was available to collect skimmed oil. Exxon, quickly recognizing what still seems to elude the Obama administration, quickly shunted BP aside and took control of the spill.

In March 2006, BP was responsible for an Alaska pipeline rupture that spilled more than 250,000 gallons of crude into Prudhoe Bay – at the time, a spill second in size only to the Valdez disaster. Investigators found that BP had repeatedly ignored internal warnings about corrosion brought about by “draconian” cost cutting. The company got off cheap in the spill: While the EPA recommended slapping the firm with as much as $672 million in fines, the Bush administration allowed it to settle for just $20 million.

BP has also cut corners at the expense of its own workers. In 2005, 15 workers were killed and 170 injured after a tower filled with gasoline exploded at a BP refinery in Texas. Investigators found that the company had flouted its own safety procedures and illegally shut off a warning system before the blast. An internal cost-benefit analysis conducted by BP – explicitly based on the children’s taleThe Three Little Pigs – revealed that the oil giant had considered making buildings at the refinery blast-resistant to protect its workers (the pigs) from an explosion (the wolf). BP knew lives were on the line: “If the wolf blows down the house, the piggy is gobbled.” But the company determined it would be cheaper to simply pay off the families of dead pigs.

After the blast, BP pleaded guilty to a felony, paying $50 million to settle a criminal investigation and another $21 million for violating federal safety laws. But the fines failed to force BP to change its ways. In October, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis hit the company with a proposed $87 million in new fines – the highest in history – for continued safety violations at the same facility. Since 2007, according to analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, BP has received 760 citations for “egregious and willful” safety violations – those “committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.” The rest of the oil industry combined has received a total of one.

The company applied the same deadly cost-cutting mentality to its oil rig in the Gulf. BP, it is important to note, is less an oil company than a bank that finances oil exploration; unlike ExxonMobil, which owns most of the equipment it uses to drill, BP contracts out almost everything. That includes the Deepwater Horizon rig that it leased from a firm called Transocean. BP shaved $500,000 off its overhead by deploying a blowout preventer without a remote-control trigger – a fail-safe measure required in many countries but not mandated by MMS, thanks to intense industry lobbying. It opted to use cheap, single-walled piping for the well, and installed only six of the 21 cement spacers recommended by its contractor, Halliburton – decisions that significantly increased the risk of a severe explosion. It also skimped on critical testing that could have shown whether explosive gas was getting into the system as it was being cemented, and began removing mud that protected the well before it was sealed with cement plugs.

As BP was cutting corners aboard the rig, the Obama administration was plotting the greatest expansion of offshore drilling in half a century. In 2008, as prices at the pump neared $5 a gallon, President Bush had lifted an executive moratorium on offshore drilling outside the Gulf that had been implemented by his father following the Exxon Valdez. On the campaign trail, Obama had stressed that offshore drilling “will not make a real dent in current gas prices or meet the long-term challenge of energy independence.” But once in office, he bowed to the politics of “drill, baby, drill.” Hoping to use oil as a bargaining chip to win votes for climate legislation in Congress, Obama unveiled an aggressive push for new offshore drilling in the Arctic, the Southeastern seaboard and new waters in the Gulf, closer to Florida than ever before. In doing so, he ignored his administration’s top experts on ocean science, who warned that the offshore plan dramatically understated the risks of an oil spill and petitioned Salazar to exempt the Arctic from drilling until more scientific studies could be conducted.

Undeterred, Obama and Salazar appeared together at Andrews Air Force Base on March 31st to introduce the plan. The stagecraft was pure Rove in its technicolor militaristic patriotism. The president’s podium was set up in front of the cockpit of an F-18, flanked by a massive American flag. “We are not here to do what is easy,” Salazar declared. “We are here to do what is right.” He insisted that his reforms at MMS were working: “We are making decisions based on sound information and sound science.” The president, for his part, praised Salazar as “one of the finest secretaries of Interior we’ve ever had” and stressed that his administration had studied the drilling plan for more than a year. “This is not a decision that I’ve made lightly,” he said. Two days later, he issued an even more sweeping assurance. “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” the president said. “They are technologically very advanced.”

Eighteen days later, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon rig went off like a bomb.

From the start of its operation in the Gulf, BP had found itself struggling against powerful “kicks” from gas buildup, just as MMS had warned. Now, on April 20th, the pent-up methane exploded in a fireball that incinerated 11 workers. Like a scene out of a real-life Jerry Bruckheimer film, the half-billion-dollar rig – 32,000 tons and 30 stories tall – listed over and sank to the bottom two days later, taking a mile of pipe down with it.

Within hours, the government assembled a response team at the “war room” of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. The scene, captured by a NOAA cameraman and briefly posted on the agency’s website, provides remarkable insight into the government’s engagement during the earliest hours of the catastrophe, and, more troubling, the role of top administration figures in downplaying its horrific scope.

At a conference table, nearly a dozen scientists gather around a map of the Gulf. Joshua Slater, a commissioned NOAA officer dressed in his uniform, runs the show. “So far we’ve created a trajectory [of the slick] that was passed up the chain of command to the Coast Guard and eventually to the president showing where the oil might go,” he tells the assembled team. BP’s remote operated sub, he adds, “was unsuccessful in activating the blowout preventers, so we’re gearing up right now.”

An NOAA expert on oil disasters jumps in: “I think we need to be prepared for it to be the spill of the decade.”

Written on a whiteboard at the front of the room is the government’s initial, worst-case estimate of the size of the spill. While the figure is dramatically higher than any official estimate issued by BP or the government, it is in line with the high-end calculations by scientists who have monitored the spill.

“Estm: 64k – 110k bbls/Day.” The equivalent of up to three Exxon Valdez spills gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every week.

Damningly, the whiteboard also documents the disconnect between what the government suspected to be the magnitude of the disaster and the far lower estimates it was feeding to the public. Written below the federal estimate are the words, “300,000 gal/day reported on CNN.” Appearing on the network that same day on a video feed from the Gulf, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry insisted that the government had no figure. “We do not have an estimate of the amount of crude emanating from the wellhead,” she said.

Later in the video, a voice on speakerphone with a heavy Southern accent reveals that government scientists were concerned from the very beginning about underwater plumes of oil – a reality that NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and BP executives are still seeking to downplay. “They weren’t sure how that oil was going to react once it was spilled,” the voice says. “Whether it was going to rise, or form layers and start twisting around.” The government, in short, knew from the start that surface measurements of the oil slick – on which it would premise its absurdly low estimate of 5,000 barrels a day – were likely to be unreliable.

By that evening, the White House was gearing up for an urgent response. The president convened an emergency meeting in the Oval Office with Adm. Thad Allen, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and top White House deputies Rahm Emanuel, Carol Browner and Larry Summers. Obama forcefully instructed his team that the response to the oil spill should be treated as a “number-one priority.”

But then the fog of war set in. The following day, the Coast Guard – relying on assurances from BP – declared that the spill appeared to be limited to oil that was stored aboard the sunken rig. With a worst-case crisis seemingly averted, Obama checked out, heading off for a long weekend in Asheville, North Carolina, where he and the first lady would stop for ribs at a barbecue joint called 12 Bones Smokehouse before checking into the Grove Park Inn, a golf resort and spa. Asked whether the spill would hamper the president’s offshore drilling agenda, spokesman Gibbs made light of the disaster. “I don’t honestly think it opens up a whole new series of questions,” he said. “I doubt this is the first accident that has happened, and I doubt it will be the last.”

The next day, April 24th, Landry told reporters that leaks had been discovered in the riser pipe and estimated the flow at 1,000 barrels a day. “This is a very serious spill,” she said. Over the next five days, the administration took significant steps to deal with the spill, but the effort fell far short of what was needed to tackle a crisis that BP was already privately estimating could be as catastrophic as 14,000 barrels a day. A Joint Information Center – a strange partnership involving BP, the Coast Guard and MMS – was set up in Louisiana. Senior officials met with BP CEO Tony Hayward to “receive briefings on the company efforts to stop the flow.” The Navy opened a base in Florida as a staging area for BP’s cleanup work. Salazar ordered inspections for rigs throughout the Gulf and visited BP’s command center in Houston. Napolitano began an investigation into the disaster.

The president himself was occupied elsewhere. After returning from his vacation, Obama spent Monday, April 26th palling around with Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, congratulating them on their World Series victory. He later took time to chat with the president of Honduras. When he put in a call to Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, it was to talk about tornadoes that had caused damage in that state, with only a brief mention of the oil spill. On Tuesday the 27th, Obama visited a wind-turbine plant in Iowa. Wednesday the 28th, he toured a biofuels refinery in Missouri and talked up financial reform in Quincy, Illinois. He didn’t mention the oil spill or the Gulf.

That evening, administration officials received news that – to judge from their subsequent response – scared the shit out of them. “The following is not public,” a confidential NOAA advisory stressed. “Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked, resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought. There is no official change in the volume released but the [Coast Guard] is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day. Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear.”

Standing before the cameras, a visibly shaken Landry bumbled through the reading of a press release. Although BP continued to believe its estimate of 1,000 barrels a day, she said, “NOAA experts believe the output could be as much as 5,000 barrels.” The remarks established, for the first time, a figure that both BP and the government would stick to long past its sell-by date.

After he was briefed that evening, Obama told his deputies to contact the Pentagon. The following day, Napolitano declared the BP disaster, which was now approaching the size of Puerto Rico, an “Oil Spill of National Significance” – the designation required to draw on regional resources and to appoint an incident commander to coordinate a federal response. It had taken a full week after Deepwater Horizon exploded for the government to become fully engaged – a critical lapse that allowed the crisis to spiral out of control.

The White House press office organized a show of overwhelming force, with Gibbs convening Browner, Napolitano, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, EPA chief Lisa Jackson and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara for a single press conference on April 29th. Though clearly meant to signal engagement, the all-star crew didn’t have their message straight. When Brice-O’Hara praised “the professionalism of our partner, BP,” Napolitano quickly barked, “They are not our partner! They are not our partner!” For her part, Napolitano revealed that she didn’t know whether the Defense Department possessed any assets that could help contain the spill, and referred vaguely to “whatever methodologies” BP was using to seal the well.

Instead of seizing the reins, the Obama administration cast itself in a supporting role, insisting that BP was responsible for cleaning up the mess. “When you say the company is responsible and the government has oversight,” a reporter asked Gibbs on May 3rd, “does that mean that the government is ultimately in charge of the cleanup?” Gibbs was blunt: “No,” he insisted, “the responsible party is BP.” In fact, the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan – the federal regulations that lay out the command-and-control responsibilities for cleaning up an oil spill – makes clear that an oil company like BP cannot be left in charge of such a serious disaster. The plan plainly states that the government must “direct all federal, state or private actions” to clean up a spill “where a discharge or threat of discharge poses a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States.”

“The government is in a situation where it’s required to be in charge,” says William Funk, a professor of environmental and administrative law at Lewis and Clark College who previously worked as a staff attorney in the Justice Department.

What’s more, the administration failed to ensure that BP was prepared to respond to the mess on the surface, where a lack of ships and equipment has left more than 100 miles of the coast – including vast stretches of fragile marshlands – covered in crude. According to MMS regulations, the agency is supposed to “inspect the stockpiles of industry’s equipment for the containment and cleanup of oil spills.” In BP’s case, the agency should have made sure the company was prepared to clean up a spill of 250,000 barrels a day. But when Rolling Stone asked MMS whether BP had the required containment equipment on hand, the agency’s head of public affairs in the Gulf replied, “I am not clear if MMS has the info that you are requesting.”

The effect of leaving BP in charge of capping the well, says a scientist involved in the government side of the effort, has been “like a drunk driver getting into a car wreck and then helping the police with the accident investigation.” Indeed, the administration has seemed oddly untroubled about leaving the Gulf’s fate in the hands of a repeat criminal offender, and uncurious about the crimes that may have been committed leading up to the initial sinking of the rig. The Obama Justice Department took more than 40 days after the initial blast killed 11 workers to announce it was opening a criminal probe.

From the start, the administration has seemed intent on allowing BP to operate in near-total secrecy. Much of what the public knows about the crisis it owes to Rep. Ed Markey, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. Under pressure from Markey, BP was forced to release footage of the gusher, admit that its early estimates put the leak as high as 14,000 barrels a day and post a live feed of its undersea operations on the Internet – video that administration officials had possessed from the earliest days of the disaster. “We cannot trust BP,” Markey said. “It’s clear they have been hiding the actual consequences of this spill.”

But rather than applying such skepticism to BP’s math, the Obama administration has instead attacked scientists who released independent estimates of the spill. When one scientist funded by NOAA released a figure much higher than the government’s estimate, he found himself being pressured to retract it by officials at the agency. “Are you sure you want to keep saying this?” they badgered him. Lubchenco, the head of NOAA, even denounced as “misleading” and “premature” reports that scientists aboard the research vessel Pelican had discovered a massive subsea oil plume. Speaking to PBS, she offered a bizarre denial of the obvious. “It’s clear that there is something at depth,” she said, “but we don’t even know that it’s oil yet.”

Scientists were stunned that NOAA, an agency widely respected for its scientific integrity, appeared to have been co-opted by the White House spin machine. “NOAA has actively pushed back on every fact that has ever come out,” says one ocean scientist who works with the agency. “They’re denying until the facts are so overwhelming, they finally come out and issue an admittance.” Others are furious at the agency for criticizing the work of scientists studying the oil plumes rather thanleading them. “Why they didn’t have vessels there right then and start to gather the scientific data on oil and what the impacts are to different organisms is inexcusable,” says a former government marine biologist. “They should have been right on top of that.” Only six weeks into the disaster did the agency finally deploy its own research vessel to investigate the plumes.

The failure of the obama administration to crack down on BP – and to tackle the crisis with the full force of the federal government – is likely to haunt the Gulf Coast for decades to come. Oil continues to lap up onshore in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Pelican rookeries are fouled, their eggs and nests soaked in oil. The region’s fisheries – some of the richest in the world – are imperiled; anglers and shrimpers have been barred from more than a third of the Gulf’s waters, which may never fully recover from the toxic stew of crude and chemical dispersant now twisting in its depths. The region’s beaches are empty, and tourist towns are dying. Administration officials now admit that the oil may continue to gush into the Gulf until August, when relief wells are finally in place.

Both the government and BP have reasons to downplay the extent of the spill. For BP, the motive is financial: Under the Clean Water Act, the company could owe fines of as much as $4,300 for every barrel spilled, in addition to royalties for the oil it is squandering. For the Obama administration, the disaster threatens to derail the president’s plan to expand offshore drilling. “It’s crystal clear what the federal response to the tragedy ought to be,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on environmental health. “Bring a dangerous offshore drilling pursuit to an end.”

The administration, however, has made clear that it has no intention of reversing its plan to expand offshore drilling. Four weeks into the BP disaster, when Salazar was questioned in a Senate hearing about the future of the president’s plan, he was happy to stand up for the industry’s desire to drill at any cost. “Isn’t it true,” asked Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, “that as terrible as the tragedy is, that unless we want $14, $16, $18, $20-a-gallon gasoline, that it’s not realistic to think that we would actually stop drilling for oil in the Gulf?” Unbowed by the catastrophe that was still unfolding on his watch, Salazar heartily agreed, testifying that the president had directed him to “move forward” on offshore drilling.

That may help explain why the administration has gone to unusual lengths to contain the spill’s political fallout. On May 14th, two days after the first video of the gusher was released, the government allowed BP to apply a toxic dispersant that is banned in England at the source of the leak – an unprecedented practice in the deep ocean. “The effort should be in recovering the oil, not making it more difficult to recover by dispersing it,” says Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer and former NOAA chief scientist who helped the agency confront the world’s worst-ever oil spill in the Persian Gulf after the first Iraq War. The chemical assault appeared geared, she says, “to improving the appearance of the problem rather than solving the problem.”

Critics of the administration’s drilling plans fear that the president’s decision to postpone drilling in the Arctic and appoint a commission to investigate the BP spill are merely stalling tactics, designed to blunt public anger about the disaster. “The way the PR is spinning is once that spill is plugged, then people declare victory,” says Rep. Grijalva. “The commission stalls it long enough where the memory of the American people starts to fade a little bit on the issue. After that, we’re back to where we were.”

President Obama pushed to expand offshore drilling, in part, to win votes for climate legislation, which remains blocked in the Senate. The political calculus is understandable – the risk of an oil spill weighed against the far greater threat posed by global warming – but in the end, he may have succeeded only in compounding one environmental catastrophe with another. Even if the climate bill is eventually approved, the disaster in the Gulf will serve as a lasting and ugly reminder of the price we paid for our addiction to oil. “It was a bargain with the devil,” says Steiner, the marine scientist who helped lead the response to the Valdez disaster. “And now the devil is gloating.”

Dispersant Disaster: A Closer Look At BP’s Toxic Solution.

In Uncategorized on June 11, 2010 at 9:40 am

Residents living near Oyster Bay, part of the larger Mobile Bay in Alabama, found thousands of dead prey fish before oil hit the cost.

Oldspeak: ” ‘Corexit producer Nalco claims the newest version, Corexit 9500, is more than 27 times safer than dish soap,’  riiiight… I can’t say I know of a dish soap that causes headaches, nausea,  trouble breathing, and kills any wildlife that come into contact with it.”

From Mike Ludwig @ Truthout:

Kristian Gustavson found “all sorts” of dead dolphins and sea turtles on Ship Island in past weeks. Dead marine life is a common sight in the Gulf of Mexico these days, but Gustavson said the water was clear. The beaches on the Mississippi barrier island were white and clean. Oil from the British Petroleum’s underwater catastrophe had not reached the sprawling marine graveyard.

Gustavson, co-founder of conservation group Below the Surface, believes these animals may not have simply fallen victim to the oil that has been gushing from BP’s deepwater well since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster. He said the controversial oil dispersant BP is spraying across the slick could be the culprit.

Dispersants break up the oil slick into smaller, more biodegradable droplets. Gustavson said the process is good for aesthetics, but huge plumes of dispersed oil are now clouding the deep sea with toxins and moving inland.

Corexit, the main line of dispersants used by BP, came under public scrutiny last week after a Congressman informed The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it is all but banned in the United Kingdom. The EPA told BP to use less Corexit and invest in chemicals proven to be less toxic and more effective.  BP issued a response defending their decision to use Corexit, and soon the amount of dispersants dumped in the Gulf neared an unprecedented one million gallons.

Dozens of residents along the Gulf Coast have reported headaches, nausea and trouble breathing after coming in contact with oil and dispersant fumes, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. But Corexit producer Nalco claims the newest version, Corexit 9500, is “more than 27 times safer than dish soap,” according to a web release.

Nalco is an international chemical company directed by board members who cut their petrochemical teeth with companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Exxon and – you guessed it – BP. When the media discovered the EPA had rated 12 dispersants as more effective than Corexit, all eyes turned to Nalco board memberRodney Chase, who spent 38 years with BP and left as an executive.

A million gallons of any chemical, including dish soap, could certainly harm people and wildlife, and Corexit is no exception. Nalco’s own safety data sheet identifies three hazardous chemicals in Corexit 9500, and lists symptoms of exposure as “acute” and consistent with reports from the poison control centers.

Corexit 9500 predecessor Corexit 9527 contained the notorious chemical 2-butoxyethanol that allegedly poisoned cleanup workers during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster. The Corexit 9500 data sheet does not include the chemical in its list of hazards, but a 1996 University of California study on invertebrates concluded that there was no “significant difference” in toxicity between Corexit 9500 and the older formula.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Plymouth in the UK reported that Corexit’s ability to kill invertebrates constituting the base of the underwater food chain increases substantially at a certain concentration level. The report concluded that Corexit poses a threat to shallow water ecosystems like wetlands, estuaries and coral reefs.

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This threat is a reality for conservationist Casi Callaway, director of the Mobile Baykeeper group. Oil had yet to officially reach Alabama’s Mobile Bay when Callaway spoke with Truthout on last Thursday, but she said the devastation had already begun.

“We’ve had massive fish kills,” said Callaway. “The first fish kill we had was two weeks ago … it was everything, thousands of dead fish.”

Callaway said locals have observed BP contract workers filling trash bags with “brown goop” and requesting observers stop taking pictures. She believes the microbes and invertebrates consuming the vast underwater plumes of dispersed oil are depleting the oxygen in the Gulf and choking out other species. She also said it is a “very strong possibility” that dispersants are moving into Mobile Bay ahead of the oil.

Like many researchers and conservationists, Callaway knows that some ecological sacrifices must be made to save the Gulf from destruction. But both Callaway and Gustavson say the dispersants are just a dirty way for the giant corporation to save face.

“The chemical dispersant to us is a PR mechanism,” Callaway said. “Get it out of sight, get it out of mind. What we don’t know about the chemical dispersant is every reason not to use it.”

She insists options like siphoning and burning the oil are not perfect, but they are safer than filling the water with chemicals and expanding clouds of sinking oil droplets. Gustavson, who insists that “fighting pollution with pollution” can never work, said he is researching ways to use the Mississippi River and the natural filtration power of the wetlands to address the disaster.

For conservationists like Callaway and Gustavson, the fight to restore the Gulf Coast will continue for years. They don’t have billions of dollars to throw around like BP and corporate disaster profiteers, but they know environmental stewardship does more than scratch the surface. It goes much deeper than that.

BP And Halliburton Build Legal Teams, Attempt To Buy Off Government Officials

In Uncategorized on June 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Oldspeak: ” Corporate Psychology 101 #1 Externalize Cost, Internalize Profit. #2 Buy off regulators/politicians to facilitate maximum cost/corner-cutting and rule bending/breaking. #3 Recruit high powered legal teams to bury victims in paper/procedural work and avoid paying for inevitable fuck ups when the shit hits the fan.”

From Alex Seitz-Wald @ Think Progress:

Facing possible jail time for their roles in the largest oil spill in American history, BP and Halliburton are building high-powered legal teams with “deep Department of Justice and White House ties.” But the companies are pursuing other means to defend themselves as well.

Halliburton’s campaign donations have spiked as it tries to curry favor with key members of Congress investigating the disaster. The company donated $17,000 in May, making it “the busiest donation month for Halliburton’s PAC since September 2008,” Politico reports. Thirteen of the 14 contributions from May went to Republicans, while seven went to members of Congress who are “on committees with oversight of the oil spill and its aftermath”:

About one week before executive Timothy Probert appeared before the House Energy and Commerce’s investigative subcommittee, Halliburton donated $1,500 to Ranking Republican Joe Barton’s reelection effort. It was Halliburton’s second-largest donation of the month — topped only by $2,500 to former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is running for the Senate.

In the Senate, Idaho Republican Mike Crapo, who serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson, who serves on the Commerce Committee and North Carolina Republican Richard Burr (N.C.), who serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, all got $1,000. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also got $1,000.

Meanwhile, a Hill analysis found that primarily during the Bush administration, BP and other oil companies “paid for dozens of trips and meals for officials” from the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Homeland Security — agencies deeply involved in the regulation of oil exploration and spill cleanup. BP had the “highest tab for gifts to government officials” of all oil and gas companies:

BP and its affiliates — BP America and BP Exploration — show up in the gift reports at least 16 different times,paying for meals as well as for oil and gas industry seminars and tours of oil facilities. The cost of the gifts totaled more than $7,200.

Only two industry-funded trips took place during the first nine months of President Obama’s administration. In 2004, BP paid for a group of Interior officials to visit an offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The group included then-deputy secretary J. Steven Griles, who later went to prison for his role in Jack Abramoff scandal. In 2005, BP paid for travel and meals for then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Minerals Management Service (MMS) Director Johnnie Burton to attended the dedication ceremony of another offshore rig in the Gulf. BP also paid for officials from the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service to visit Prudhoe Bay, Alaska over a period of several years. A recent Interior Inspector General report covering 2005 to 2007 found a “culture of lax oversight and cozy ties to industry.” Since January of 2008, BP lobbyists have spent $30 million to influence legislation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Some coastal governors have benefited from BP as well. BP and other oil companies gave Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) $1.8 million dollars for his campaign, and since the spill, he’s beenaggressively downplaying the disaster and encouraging people to visit his state’s oily beaches. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) traveled to a BP-funded conference in Houston last month “to lobby aggressively to drill for oil and natural gas without delay.” Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) dismissed potential BP negligence by calling the spill an “act of God” at a trade association funded by BP in May.

Government Impotence and Corporate Rule

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2010 at 8:33 am

Oldspeak: “Just as we saw in Wall Street’s devastating economic disaster and in Massey Energy’s murderous explosion inside its Upper Big Branch coal mine, the nastiness in the gulf is baring an ugly truth that We the People must finally face: We are living under de facto corporate rule that has rendered our government impotent.” The corporatocracy is slowly and surely choking the life out of civilization and democracy as we know it. Short-term profit trumps common sense, safety, and long-term sustainability.

From Jim Hightower @ Truthout:

Many news reports about the Gulf oil catastrophe refer to it as a “spill.” Wrong. A spill is a minor “oops” — one accidentally spills milks, for example, and from childhood, we’re taught the old aphorism: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” What’s in the Gulf isn’t milk and it wasn’t spilt. The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon well was the inevitable result of deliberate decisions made by avaricious corporate executives, laissez faire politicians and obsequious regulators.

As the ruinous gulf oil blowout spreads onto land, over wildlife, across the ocean floor and into people’s lives, it raises a fundamental question for all of us Americans: Who the hell’s in charge here? What we’re witnessing is not merely a human and environmental horror, but also an appalling deterioration in our nation’s governance. Just as we saw in Wall Street’s devastating economic disaster and in Massey Energy’s murderous explosion inside its Upper Big Branch coal mine, the nastiness in the gulf is baring an ugly truth that We the People must finally face: We are living under de facto corporate rule that has rendered our government impotent.

Thirty years of laissez-faire, ideological nonsense (pushed upon us with a vengeance in the past decade) has transformed government into a subsidiary of corporate power. Wall Street, Massey, BP and its partners — all were allowed to become their own “regulators” and officially encouraged to put their short-term profit interests over the public interest.

Let’s not forget that on April 2, barely two weeks before Deepwater Horizon blew and 11 people perished on the spot, the public’s No. 1 official, Barack Obama, trumpeted his support for more deepwater oil drilling, blithely regurgitating Big Oil’s big lie: “Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” He and his advisors had not bothered to check the truth of that — they simply took the industry’s word. That’s not governing, it’s aiding and abetting profiteers, and it’s a pathetic performance.

But that was only the start of Washington’s oily confession that it has surrendered control to corporate arrogance and avarice. With an unprecedented volume of crude gushing from the well and the magnitude of the disaster multiplying geometrically by the day, who was in charge of coping with that? Not the White House, not the interior secretary, not the EPA. As we saw when Wall Street’s greed exploded our economy, the polluting scoundrels were left in charge!

While BP’s dapper CEO issued patently ridiculous statements (such as, “Everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact of this will be very, very modest.”), our government blindly went along with BP’s false assertion that only some 5,000 barrels a day were pouring from the well, when independent experts were shouting at the White House that the correct volume was up to 19 times that much.

Finally, almost a month after the blowout, Obama ordered a moratorium on drilling new offshore wells and on granting environmental waivers to the oil giants. Bravo, Mr. President! But … his moratorium was simply ignored. Days after his order, oil companies were handed at least seven more drilling permits and five waivers.

Last week, with 63 percent of the public disapproving of his meek deference to BP, the president of the United States of America was reduced to convening a press conference to insist that he was “engaged” and, behind the scenes, was “monitoring” BP’s efforts.

Wow, monitoring! Excuse me, but who’s the president here? Obama should personally take charge —cancel all of his social and political events, convene an emergency response team of the best scientific minds in the world, announce a clear plan of clean-up actions, install all relevant Cabinet officials in a Gulf Coast command center to direct the actions, make daily reports on progress to the public, fire a mess of failed regulators and go to Congress with sweeping legislation to replace America’s oil dependency with a crash program of conservation and renewable energy sources.

Oh, he should also wring a few corporate necks. Instead of monitoring these criminals, prosecute them — and put the public back in charge of our government.

How Bush’s DOJ Killed a Criminal Probe Into BP That Threatened to Net Top Officials

In Uncategorized on May 24, 2010 at 9:56 am

Oldspeak: The Political-Industrial Complex was running on all cylinders to cover for this monumentally fucked up, criminally negligent, repeat offending “corporate citizen”.  And today we have the Gulf Oil Mexico.

From Jason Leopold @ Truthout:

Mention the name of the corporation BP to Scott West and two words immediately come to mind: Beyond Prosecution.

West was the special agent-in-charge at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Criminal Investigation Division who had been probing alleged crimes committed by BP and the company’s senior officials in connection with a March 2006 pipeline rupture at the company’s Prudhoe Bay operations in Alaska’s North Slope that spilled 250,000 gallons of oil across two acres of frozen tundra – the second largest spill in Alaska’s history – which went undetected for nearly a week.

West was confident that the thousands of hours he invested into the criminal investigation would result in felony charges against BP and the company’s senior executives who received advanced warnings from dozens of employees who worked at its Prudhoe Bay facility that unless immediate steps were taken to repair the severely corroded pipeline, a disaster on par with that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was only a matter of time.

Click here to listen to Scott West discuss this report on Democracy Now!

In fact, West, who spent nearly two decades at the EPA’s criminal division, was also told the pipeline was going to rupture – about six months before it happened.

In a wide-ranging interview with Truthout, West described how the Justice Department (DOJ) abruptly shut down his investigation into BP in August 2007 and gave the company a “slap on the wrist” for what he says were serious environmental crimes that should have sent some BP executives to jail.

He first aired his frustrations after he retired from the agency in 2008. But he said his story is ripe for retelling because the same questions about BP’s record are being raised again after a catastrophic explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and ruptured an oil well 5,000 feet below the surface spewing 200,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf waters for a month.

The Watchdog

In the summer of 2005, West was transferred from San Francisco to the EPA’s Seattle office and was introduced to Chuck Hamel, an oil industry watchdog, who is credited with exposing weak pollution laws at the Valdez tanker port in the 1980s prior to the Exxon Valdez spill and the electrical and maintenance problems associated with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline operated by BP.

Hamel had become the defacto spokesperson and protector of dozens of BP Exploration Alaska (BPXA) whistleblowers, who would routinely leak to him documents, pictures and inside information about the company’s poor safety and maintenance record at its Prudhoe Bay operations.

Hamel also operated a now defunct web site, Anwrnews.com (the acronym for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), which became a clearing house for the whistleblowers’ complaints and an archive showcasing, among other things, the letters Hamel had written to Congress, the White House and BP’s top executives exposing the company’s shoddy operations in the North Slope and demanding immediate action. The tagline on the archived version of Anwrnews.com says it was “established by and for the many concerned Prudhoe Bay BP operators who fear for their lives and the environment due to violations of Government regulations and requirements by BP.”

One of the letters still posted on the web site is dated January 10, 2001. It was sent to him by unnamed BP employees, who asked him to assist them in getting BP management to address their concerns about safety and maintenance issues that their repeated attempts had failed to do. They said they even reached out to then-BP President Lord John Browne about “inadequate staffing levels” two years earlier, but never received a response.

“We were concerned about our recommendations being ignored and disregarded…We were concerned about BP’s cost cutting efforts undermining our ability to respond to emergencies and reducing the reliability of critical safety systems. We were concerned about the lack of preventative maintenance on our equipment,” the BP employees’ letter said. “We had suffered a major fire, which burned a well pad module to the ground and nearly cost one of our operators his life.

“We had suffered two job fatalities and a third serious injury to personnel in the months before the letter was sent. In response to our concerns, Sir John’s Management Team further reduced our staffing levels from six to four in the GC Plants and from seven to six on the Well Pads. Our four Plant Operators do the work that seven did in 1990.

“It is clear that BP Management has one priority and that is cost reduction … Perhaps you may know some way of getting our concerns heard and addressed. If these concerns are not addressed, we feel that a major catastrophe is imminent. We have only our lives and our futures at risk here.”

Hamel followed up the employees’ letter with one he sent on April 11, 2001,  to Browne at the company’s London headquarters alerting him to the substandard safety and maintenance policies in place at Prudhoe Bay that threatened the welfare of BP employees, an issue that persists at the facility nearly a decade later.

“Courageous ‘Concerned Individuals’ contacted me for assistance in reaching you,” Hamel’s letter to Browne said. “They have not succeeded in being heard in the past two years in London, Juneau or Washington. I am again a reluctant conduit. They hope that you will take whatever action appropriate to effect corrective action which would protect the environment, the facilities and their safety.”

Hamel also sent a copy of the letter to President Bush. It is unclear if either Browne or the Bush White House ever responded or even read the letter. BP would not comment for this story. But a majority of these allegations were repeated to West when he met with Hamel years later, and one explosive tidbit of information would form the basis of his criminal investigation into the company.

West said when he met Hamel he was told in no uncertain terms by Hamel that a section of pipeline at a caribou crossing – a “perfect habitat for corrosion” – was filled with sludge and was going to rupture and when it did it would be catastrophic.

“He said ‘eventually, the pipeline will fail,'” West said.

Hamel explained that the pipeline was so fragile that new employees were warned not to lean against it or allow their keys to bang against the structure because of the damage it could cause.

Hamel also told West that BP failed to take steps to conduct an internal inspection of the pipeline through a lengthy process known as “smart pigging,” which calls for sending electronic monitors, referred to as “smart pigs,” through the pipeline to determine whether any defects exist, such as sediment buildup, on the pipeline walls. The monitors squeal as they travel through the pipeline and that’s how the device got its name. It would later be revealed that BP had not conducted such an inspection for eight years and ignored and or retaliated against employees who suggested the company do so.

West said the first question he posed to Hamel was “how do you know this?”

“This is what the employees are telling me,” West said, recalling his conversation with Hamel. Hamel was unavailable to comment for this story. “I told Chuck that if you don’t have first hand information there’s not much that I can do. I asked if I can speak to the employees. But he’s extremely protective of them and wanted assurances that I would keep their identities confidential and I wouldn’t bring any harm to them. I gave him my word and he arranged for me to speak to these guys.”

“Nightmares”

During the time that West met with Hamel, Congress was debating opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration and BP, which operated the Prudhoe Bay oil field, the largest in North America and jointly owned by ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips, would have led the drilling efforts.

One of the concerns that employees expressed back then was that the frequent oil spills at Prudhoe Bay would also become a routine occurrence in ANWR because of BP’s ongoing cost-cutting measures that left its operations vulnerable. And for that reason, some employees opposed calls to pass legislation to drill in ANWR.

In an interview with Truthout in 2005, Hamel said whistleblowers informed him and then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who at the time was touring the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, that the safety valves at Prudhoe Bay, which kick in in the event of a pipeline rupture, failed to close. Secondary valves that connect the oil platforms with processing plants also failed to close. And because the technology at Prudhoe Bay would be duplicated at ANWR, that meant there was a strong chance for an explosion and massive oil spills.

West said after he spoke with a handful of the BP whistleblowers he “started having nightmares.”

“They told me there was going to be a massive spill on the North Slope and I need to be ready,” West said. “I had these guys telling me about conversations they had with midlevel managers and documents they turned in exposing the pipeline corrosion and leak detection equipment on pipes that failed and ignored because it went off all the time. The employees were slapped down. They were given a lot of grief for having raised these issues. The BP culture is keep your mouth shut and your head down because nobody at BP wants to hear about it.

“That’s why I knew this was a criminal case,” West said. “BP turned a blind eye and deaf ear to their experts who predicted a major spill. It wasn’t an intentional act to put oil on the ground, but it was intentional act to ignore their employees. That’s negligence and its criminal. ”

West said he contacted colleagues in one of EPA’s regional offices in around December 2005 that he had information an oil spill was likely to happen in the North Slope.

“I was more interested in keeping the oil in the pipe,” West said. “But the transit lines are not regualted by the federal government. It was the State of the Alaska that had jurisdiction. The only thing we could do was wait.”

Prediction Becomes Reality

On March 2, 2006, West was at his desk when he received a phone call.

“It was one of the employees I spoke to months earlier,” West said. “He said ‘just as we predicted, there’s a leak at the caribou crossing we told you about and it’s pretty bad.'”

Even worse, the leak had gone undetected for nearly a week. The leak detection equipment employees had warned BP managers about malfunctioned and for about five days oil spilled out of a hole in the pipeline the size of a pencil eraser. The leak was discovered when an oilfield worker surveying the area smelled petroleum in the air and stepped out of his car to investigate.

“He ended up with a black foot,” West said. “That’s how bad the spill was.”

The oil leak was determined to be caused by “severe corrosion.” It forced BP to shut down five oil processing centers in the region for about two weeks, which led to a spike in gas prices during a time of tight crude supplies.

Longtime BP employee Marc Kovac said a couple of weeks after the oil spill that he and his co-workers warned the company numerous times that their aggressive cost-cutting measures would increase the likelihood of accidents, pipeline ruptures and spills.

“For years we’ve been warning the company about cutting back on maintenance,” Kovac told The New York Times. “We know that this [March 2006 oil spill] could have been prevented.”

West said he immediately dispatched one of his investigators to the North Slope and he admits that he became “excited about the prospect of putting people in jail for environmental crimes” and that was his goal as he and his team, working with the FBI, the DOJ and Alaska state environmental and regulatory officials, launched their probe into the circumstances behind the spill.

As West’s investigation into the company began to take shape, he obtained information that “very senior people in [BP’s] London [headquarters] were aware of what was going on [with regard to the corrosion in the pipeline] and did nothing.”

“That’s where my investigation was going,” he said. “This was one of the top two cases being investigated by the EPA’s criminal division in 2007. This was a big deal. This case had all the markings of letting us getting high and deep into the corporate veil. ”

West would not identify the executives, but two DOJ officials, who work in the agency’s environmental and natural resources division and are familiar with the case, said it was Browne, BP’s then-president and chief executive, and Tony Hayward, who was head of the company’s production and exploration division. The DOJ officials would only speak on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive issues surrounding BP in the aftermath of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that led to the massive oil spill in the Gulf.

Hayward took over for Browne in May 2007, a move that BP accelerated by 18 months in the wake of the Alaska oil spill and widespread safety issues there at a March 2005 refinery explosion in Texas that killed 15 employees.

Grand Jury Convened

One of the setbacks West faced early on, however, was that he could not use the information he and his investigators obtained from the employees who claimed BP officials knew about the pipeline corrosion prior to the spill.

“One of the things that made this case slow was the vindictive nature of BP,” West said. “Sources we spoke with would not allow their name to be used because they feared they would be fired or retaliated against. What that meant was that I couldn’t send investigators out to knock on their doors at night and take their statements. [The employees] said ‘what you have to do is get me in front of a grand jury and subpoena me to testify.'”

So, the US attorney’s office in Anchorage, under the guidance of Assistant US Attorney Aunnie Steward, the lead prosecutor on the case, convened a grand jury to hear witness testimony and subpoena witnesses as well as documents from BP. Because grand jury testimonies are secret, West could not say who or how many people testified before the panel. Nor could he divulge the details about what they revealed.

West said his team prepared a “surgical subpoena,” requesting specific documents from the company that would shed light on who knew what and when regarding the Alaska pipeline rupture.

“BP overwhelmed us,” West recalled. “When I say overwhelmed I’m talkin’ 62 million pages of documents they turned over. That told me there was a smoking gun in there but it was going to take time to find it.”

“Like Trying to Turn the Titanic”

The investigation progressed into 2007, and by June of that year, prosecutors were discussing the evidence of BP’s alleged crimes.

Indeed, in a confidential email dated June 12, 2007, Steward sent to other federal and state prosecutors and EPA officials working on the case. Steward said what made the Alaska pipeline spill an issue of criminal negligence was that “BP knew or should have known that failure to maintenance pig the line that leaked would cause the line to fail.”

“Standard in the industry is anywhere from quarterly to once every five years,” said Steward’s email, under the subject line “BP Theory of the Case.” The email was prepared in preparation for an August 2007 meeting with BP’s defense attorneys. Steward noted that the goal for the prosecution for the next two months is to “get something in writing on the charges and the evidence. It won’t be trial ready in August.” But she said her hope “for the August 28 [2007] meeting is to listen to BP and find out what they think their defenses or mitigating circumstances are so that we can focus on those.”

As for the evidence, Steward said the prosecution had plenty and she expressed an interest in pursuing felony charges.

“It had been eight years since the line had been pigged. We have a nice photo of the cross-section of pipe where the leak occurred with 6 inches of sediment accumulated in the line. BP’s own corrosion engineers say that if they had known there was that much sediment in the line they would have pigged immediately. The important point here is that other parts of BP’s organization besides the corrosion team knew that there was sediment in the line – so perhaps a corporate collective knowledge would get us to knowing, ie, BP knew that failure to pig was going to cause the pipe to fail because of sediment build up.”

By this point, BP had mounted a vigorous defense and suggested that even if they had performed maintenance on the line it still could have failed. But the company’s own corrosion engineers disagreed with that assertion. The company also said that it intended to pig the line by the summer of 2006, but the oil spill happened first.

Moreover, according to Steward’s email, “BP has also made a point of saying that everyone thought these lines were not likely to leak and so even if they had more money to throw at it, nothing would have been done differently regarding the lines that leaked. We have a ton of evidence to the contrary on this point.”

Steward’s email then indicates that employee concerns about aggressive cost-cutting measures were substantiated during the course of the investigation. She indicated that BP has stated publicly that the company “changed their attitude” about cost-cutting in 2005, after the Texas refinery explosion and was “trying to do the right thing but they just didn’t do it quickly enough (and I think the implication is that they should thus not be penalized).”

“It was all, however, too little too late,” Steward wrote. “Like trying to turn the titanic. Managers at BP have said that things were so tight at BP from the 90s through 2004 that even after things began to change in 2005 the mentality of employees was still so entrenched in cost cutting that the first response to any proposal is ‘we’ll never get the money for that’. The only reason things started to change were because the corrosion manager was such a tyrant and cost cutting was so rampant that whistleblowers complained to the probation office while [BP Exploration Alaska] was on probation for [a prior] felony conviction. This led to an audit in ’04 which recommended serious changes in organization and budgeting to address the problems that started to be rolled out in ’05.”

The audit was prepared by the law firm Vinson & Elkins. It said BP created a climate of fear for employees who wanted to report concerns about the company’s operations. Congressional investigators probing the March 2006 oil spill obtained internal BP emails that showed executives issued “budget challenges” and ordered “top down cost cutting” with no regard for the safety of its pipelines.

Steward said in her email, however, that the “explosion in Texas got BP’s attention” and company executives maintained that BP had “changed.”

“Tony Hayward traveled to [Alaska] after the [Texas refinery] explosion to see if there were similar problems in [Alaska] as in [Texas] such as overly aggressive cost cutting and a lack of communication between [management] and employees and found that there were,” she wrote.

Hayward told BP employees who attended a town hall type meeting in December 2006 that BP has “a leadership style that is too directive and doesn’t listen sufficiently well. The top of the organisation doesn’t listen sufficiently to what the bottom is saying.”

Those comments led Steward to conclude that the changes at BP “did not come about because they were being good corporate citizens, it was because they were already felons and had recently killed a bunch of people.”

Steward also attached a 12-page memo to her from Dean Ingemansen, the EPA’s criminal enforcement attorney, of the proposed fines that could be levied against BP Exploration Alaska for the week-long oil spill as well as another spill that occurred five months later, which also resulted from a corroded pipeline.

Ingemansen concluded, based on his review of case law, sentencing decisions and “guidance documents” from the EPA and the DOJ’s Environmental Crimes Manual, that BP could be penalized as much as $672 million for the March and August 2006 oil spills or as little as $58 million, “incredibly low settlements” as far as West was concerned.

“Something Sinister”

West said he knew he still had quite a bit of work to do. Although his probe had crossed the one year mark, he didn’t have enough evidence to recommend felony charges against BP or senior executives.

“These are complex investigations,” West said. “It usually takes a minimum of three to five years.”

But during a meeting of investigators and prosecutors in Anchorage on August 28, 2007, to discuss the case, West said, he was told that if he did not have enough evidence to allow prosecutors to file immediate felony charges against BP or executives at the company than the government was no longer interested in pursuing the case.

Federal prosecutors “asked me what I thought we could charge BP at that very moment and I said a criminal misdemeanor for Clean Water Act violations,” West said. “And they said ‘OK, then a misdemeanor it is.’ I’m screaming bloody murder! I told them I’m hot on the trail. Don’t kill this investigation now! It would be different if I were working this case for six years and spent a lot of time and resources on it. But it was only 17 months.”

DOJ attorneys in Alaska decided the best course of action was to settle the case then and there. West said he continued to argue against the “rush to settle” and explained that he still had a large volume of evidence he hadn’t yet reviewed. He said he needed at least another year.

“They said flatly ‘no,'” West said. He then asked for six months and again was rebuffed.

“How about three more months?”

“No,” he was told. “It’s over.”

West said he was pulled aside at the end of the meeting by Karen Loeffler, then the chief of the criminal division of the US attorney’s office in Alaska.

“She told me that she was just following orders and that the decision to close the case and settle was made by Ron Tenpas,” the assistant attorney general for Environment and Natural Resources at Main Justice, who was appointed to that position earlier in the year.

Tenpas, now in private practice at the law firm Morgan Lewis in Washington, DC, did not return calls or emails seeking comment. Loeffler also did not respond to requests for comment. Loeffler, who is now the US Attorney in Alaska, had previously denied that she told West that Tenpas shut down the probe. Tenpas had said in November 2008 that, while he agreed with the decision to settle, the decision to do so was not his.

West said he would be willing “to testify under oath and take a lie detector test” to prove that Loeffler told him Tenpas killed the investigation.

“What really irritated me though is that my own management didn’t even back me on this one,” West said. “Something happened between June of 2007 when Aunnie Steward sent the email talking about serious criminal charges and the meeting I attended in August when the case was killed.”

He suspects that federal prosecutors in Alaska had already been negotiating with BP about a plea agreement prior to the August 28, 2007, meeting. DOJ officials familiar with the case said they were unaware whether there was any interference from the Bush White House or senior agency officials that would have led to the decision to shutter the probe.

In a statement issued in November 2008 when he first went public, the DOJ said West’s claims that something “sinister took place between June 12 and August 28, 2007” are “not based in fact and simply not true.”

“As with any investigation, there comes a point in time when further investigation is no longer warranted if it does not have a realistic chance of generating useful evidence,” the statement said. In this case, the judgment by career prosecutors was that the case had been sufficiently and fully investigated to reach appropriate charging decisions. No further investigation was likely to find evidence that would shed any new light on the essential facts of the case. The investigators from the EPA and FBI agreed with the prosecution’s approach.”

Naturally, West disagrees.

“I know how this case would have proceeded,” he said. “I would have interviewed more people and developed more leads and obtained more documents to look at. That’s a guarantee. At the end of the day we would have had a clear understanding of who knew what and when and then we would be able to make appropriate charging decisions. But because the investigation was shut down that was the end of it.”

Penalty Phase

West said he believed the DOJ did not appropriately handle the case as it moved into the penalty phase a couple of months later.

“The US Attorney in Alaska, Nelson Cohen, sidestepped the recommendations EPA made for fines against BP,” West said. “He said the fine would fall somewhere between $20 to $35 million and that the benchmark he came up with was based on the [1999] Olympic Pipeline” explosion in Bellingham, Washington, that spilled 277,000 gallons of gasoline into nearby creeks, which killed a teenager and two ten-year-old boys.

West said he had a run-in with Cohen in October 2006, when, at the prosecutor’s request, he met privately with him in Anchorage to discuss the case. Cohen was one of the recess appointments recommended by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to fill the vacancy in the federal prosecutor’s office in Alaska.

West said Cohen asked him “what do you know about me?”

“I said I didn’t know anything about him, but I told him I was anticipating the Attorney General to make a recess appointment who would come to Alaska and kill my case against BP. And here you are.”

West was, a year later, invited by Cohen to attend the meeting with BP’s defense attorney Carol Dinkins and other people representing the company where terms of the plea deal would be hammered.

“I was shocked at what I witnessed,” West said. “Cohen opened the settlement negotiations with the lowest dollar figure: $20 million. He said the government’s benchmark was between $20 to $35 million and he opened with $20 million. I have never seen such anything like this during my career. Usually you start on the high end and negotiate toward a lower figure.”

He said BP’s defense team “hemmed and hawed” and then “came back and quickly accepted it. This looked like a big show staged for my benefit.”

Cohen told The Wall Street Journal in November 2008 that the decision to impose a $20 million fine was a “judgment call” made by his office.

“It’s not my job to take every nickel from a defendant when they have done something wrong,” Nelson said. “Our job is to come up with what we feel is fair and just.”

The problem with imposing such a low fine against BP, which reported net profits of about $17.2 billion in 2007, is that it doesn’t act as a “deterrent,” West said, particularly for a company like BP that was a “repeat offender” like BP.

West said he was told that the reason the DOJ decided on the $20 million fine was because the criminal case against the company for safety and environmental violations resulting from the Texas Refinery explosion, where 15 people were killed and 170 other were injured, was being settled for $50 million, another example, West says, of a “rushed” settlement.

On October 25, 2007, in what can be described as a package deal, BP settled all of its major criminal cases. The corporation pled guilty to a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act and paid the $20 million fine related to the March and August 2006 oil spills that occurred in the North Slope. The EPA said the $20 million fine still represented one of the largest penalties under the Clean Water Act.

That same day, the company also pled guilty to a felony for the Texas City refinery explosion and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ where the company admitted that it manipulated the propane market.

Rep. John Dingell, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, issued a statement the day the settlement was announced excoriating the oil behemoth.

“Congress has held hearing after hearing about BP’s mismanagement and now DOJ, [the Commodities Futures Trading Commission] and EPA have imposed criminal fines,” Dingell’s statement said. “It is troubling that many of the same BP executives who were responsible for the management failures that led to the criminal charges and settlements … are still employed by BP and, in some cases, have been promoted to the highest levels of the company.”

On November 29, 2007, BP formally entered a guilty plea in federal court in Alaska. US District Court Judge Ralph Beistline sentenced BP to three years probation and said the oil spills were a “serious crime” that could have been prevented if BP had spent more time and funds investing in pipeline upgrades and a “little less emphasis on profit.”

Four months later, Dingell and Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) fired off a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey questioning the rationale behind the DOJ’s settlement agreements with the company over the refinery explosion and the oil spill in Alaska. The lawmakers requested documents from the DOJ that may have shed light on a prior decision to “consolidate” all of the pending criminal cases.

Mukasey responded on April 3, 2008, and said the DOJ was “not in a position to disclose non-public information about our prosecutorial decisions.”

He did note, however, that while the three criminal plea “agreements were announced together, the agreements were not contingent on one another.”

West said Dingell and Stupak didn’t push back hard enough.

“They should have brought me in and DOJ officials to testify about the decision Ronald Tenpas made to shut down the case,” West said. “When you have a situation like this where a special agent-in-charge is going to the Justice Department and saying ‘I’m not done’ give me a year, six months, three months and the answer is no that’s completely unheard of.”

The settlement, according to blogger bmaz, an attorney, is evidence of how the Department of Justice “under the politicized Republican rule of Bush and Cheney instituted a preference for coddling corporate malfeasants like BP and Exxon with lax civil measures instead of punitive criminal prosecutions and, in the process, created a get rich windfall program for their friends to serve as “monitors” for the civil settlements.”

Citing an April 2008 New York Times report, bmaz wrote that the policy began when Bush was sworn into office and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty made it official Justice Department policy in 2006.

According to the Times report:

In a major shift of policy, the Justice Department, once known for taking down giant corporations, including the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, has put off prosecuting more than 50 companies suspected of wrongdoing over the last three years.

Instead, many companies, from boutique outfits to immense corporations like American Express, have avoided the cost and stigma of defending themselves against criminal charges with a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, which allows the government to collect fines and appoint an outside monitor to impose internal reforms without going through a trial. In many cases, the name of the monitor and the details of the agreement are kept secret.

The Whistleblower

West’s tenure at the EPA after his investigation into BP was shut down was tumultuous. He said the agency tried to fire him over the fact that he continued to be outspoken about the case.

He retired from the agency on October 29, 2008.

“I took a bath and washed off the stink because I was so disgusted,” he said.

Two days later, he would become a whistleblower in his own right.

West took his complaints about the way the BP case was handled to the nonprofit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). He issued a two-page statement on October 31, 2008, that said he never had a “significant environmental criminal case shut down by the political arm of the Department of Justice, nor have I had a case declined by the Department of Justice before I had been fully able to investigate the case. This is unprecedented in my experience.”

“The case against BP Alaska involved a major oil company with strong political connections,” West said. ” We had several investigative avenues available to us that in my judgment as a veteran senior manager with the EPA Criminal Investigation Division would likely have led us to find criminal culpability on the part of a number of senior BP officials and to felonious behavior by this major corporation.”

The EPA issued a statement a few days later in response to West’s claims. “In the case of BP Alaska, after a robust 18-month criminal investigation, EPA, FBI and DOT, along with DOJ prosecutors, jointly concluded the corporation was liable for a negligent discharge of oil,” the agency’s November 3, 2008, statement said. “EPA, along with DOJ, also concluded that further investigative efforts were unlikely to be fruitful.”

PEER’s Executive Director Jeff Ruch filed a complaint with DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine on November 10, 2008, asking him to probe, among other things, whether West’s investigation was “prematurely closed down” and if the amount of the fines were adequate. Fine’s office responded by saying the allegations leveled by PEER was a matter for the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which is charged with investigating attorney misconduct. The OPR concluded federal prosecutors acted appropriately, according to a letter sent to PEER.

Last year, the DOJ filed a civil suit on behalf of the EPA against BP Exploration Alaska over the March and August 2006 two massive oil spills in Prudhoe Bay three years ago. One of the spills forced BP to shut down it’s oil processing centers in the region for five days, which led to price spikes during a period of tight crude oil supplies.

The complaint, filed by the DOJ on behalf of the EPA and the Department of Transportation-Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), is seeking maximum penalties from BP, alleging the company violated federal clean air and water laws and failed to implement spill prevention technology.

The state of Alaska also sued BP for violating environmental laws, claiming it lost as much as $1 billion in revenue due to the 2006 oil spills, which resulted in 35 million barrels of oil that BP was unable to produce. The complaint said the spills along with BP’s work to repair a severely corroded pipeline “significantly reduced oil production for more than two years.”

Oil Spill Redux

Despite the plea agreement BP entered into, it would appear the company may still be cutting corners on safety and maintenance.

Last November, a pipeline ruptured at BP’s Prudhoe Bay oil field, spilling 46,000 gallons of crude oil and water onto the North Slope, which now hovers just a notch under the top ten oil spills in the region. State officials said the rupture occurred due to a buildup of ice inside the pipeline that caused it to burst under pressure.

Criminal and civil investigations were immediately announced, led by West’s former colleagues at the EPA’s criminal division and the FBI.

“The (EPA) Criminal Investigation Division is continuing to work in concert with our federal and state partners and British Petroleum, to assess the situation associated with the November 29 [2009] rupture,” said Tyler Amon, the division’s acting special agent in charge for the Northwest. “This matter is under investigation.”

BP is still on probation for the March 2006 oil spill. If investigators determine that the company failed to address any of the maintenance and safety issues whistleblowers had told West about before and after the 2006 leak, then that would likely be a probation violation.

Mary Frances Barnes, BP’s probation officer, said that is a question investigators will determine.

“It will be looked into,” Barnes told Truthout. “We just have let the investigations play out first.”

West, who now heads the Department of Intelligence and Investigations for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has heard that story before.

“I don’t think BP learned any lessons,” he said. “They were just doing what corporations do. It’s the government that failed us. Now there’s the disaster in the Gulf. When I first heard about it, I said to my wife that it’s probably a BP rig and I was right. I will bet that when the investigations into the explosion and leak are complete we’re going to find out it had something to do with BP cutting corners.”

BP Told to Stop Distributing Oil Spill Settlement Agreements

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Oldspeak: Sociopathic Corporate Behavior, in all it’s splendor.

From CBS News:

BP is financially responsible for the devastatingly massive oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico, but some are concerned the oil company isn’t giving residents along the affected coastline or emergency relief crews a fair shake.

Alabama Attorney General Troy King said Sunday night that he has told BP they should stop circulating settlement agreements among coastal Alabamians, the Mobile Press-Register reports. King reportedly said the agreements stipulate that residents will give up their right to sue the company in exchange for a payment of up to $5,000.

“People need to proceed with caution and understand the ramifications before signing something like that,” said King, who noted that he is prohibited from giving legal advice to private citizens. “They should seek appropriate counsel to make sure their rights are protected.”

The Press-Register reports that BP spokesman Darren Beaudo responded, “To the best of my knowledge BP did not ask residents of Alabama to waive their legal rights in the way that has been described.”

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are holding a conference call with BP executives later today to discuss the claims process for people impacted by the oil spill, CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer reports.

Meanwhile, BP has agreed to alter waivers signed by fishermen responding to the disaster, after a fisherman complained to a U.S. District judge. Commercial fisherman George Barasich on Sunday asked a federal court to stop BP from forcing the volunteer corps of oil-spill responders to sign a waiver that compromised their right to sue the company in the case of an accident and required confidentiality about the clean up.

According to the Globe and Mail, the waiver read, “I hearby agree on behalf of myself and my representatives, to hold harmless and indemnify, and to release, waive, and forever discharge BP Exploration and Production Inc., its subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, regular employees and independent contractors…”

After a judge said the waiver was too broad, BP said it would strip out the offending provisions and would not enforce the waivers already signed.

BP CEO Tony Hayward told CBS’ “The Early Show” Monday that “This is not our accident, but it’s our responsibility.” On the company’s website, BP says it will pay compensation for “legitimate and objectively verifiable” claims for property damage, personal injury and commercial losses.

President Obama this weekend said the oil spill is a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.”