Thursday, May 6th 2010
IN LOUISIANA OIL SPILL
DID STATE AND FEDERAL AGENCIES DROP THE BALL?
By Jim Brown
It didn’t take long for the blame game to begin shortly after the tragic Gulf oil explosion. State and Federal officials were in lock step in declaring that British Petroleum (BP), who had leased the gulf oil track from the federal government, was completely at fault and had the sole obligation to get the mess cleaned up. “Our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum…to stop this spill,” asserted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. But is that the game plan for a major gulf explosion? Pass the blame and holler for the other guy to solve the problem?
Salazar was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in saying: “The administration responded with all hands on deck from day one.” But the question is…how? Was there a “disaster game plan” on both the federal and state levels to deal with this massive spill? Or were both the president and the Louisiana state officials making best efforts not to relive a Katrina response, where virtually every governmental body in the mix failed to promptly respond to the crisis?
Simply put, the apparent game plan by both the Feds and state officials in Louisiana was: Hey, we’re all watching, but let BP(British Petroleum )do the clean up.” It quickly became apparent that BP was in over their heads, and needed massive public help. The company may have the financial responsibility, but there was no way they had the immediate resources to put together a defensive game plan to stop the oil from infecting the sea and shoreline. What was Plan B? You always have a Plan B as a backup, right?
The easy part of governing is handling the day to day responsibilities. A number of public officials are capable of making the trains run on time. The challenge is planning for the unforeseeable. The “what if” scenario, where government faces a huge crisis and needs to immediately respond. This is certainly not a new concept for Louisiana. Katrina should have been a wakeup call. Instead the flood turned out to be a bell weather that showed a miserable failure on the part of both state and federal officials to respond with advanced planning.
And it should be no secret that a major oil spill could well take place off the Louisiana coast. All one has to do is to drive the beaches at Grand Isle to view hundreds of oil wells In plane view, A thousand more pepper the Gulf bottom 50 miles or more off shore. Certainly state and federal officials had a blueprint that kicked into gear within hours after the spill first appeared. Well, maybe not.
The director of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities was asked repeatedly at a press conference some 10 days after the spill: “Knowing what you know now, should the state have had a plan in place to protect the coast prior to the April 20 disaster?” The answer? “Under federal law, this is 100% BP’s responsibility.” Maybe so, But BP is not charged under state law to protect the ecological ecostructure as well as both the seafood and mineral industries that are a major economic generator for the state. Does Louisiana just sit back and wait for the worst to happen?
There are a variety of licenses and permits that must be obtained by the likes of BP, Anadarko Petroleum (a part owner of the oil lease), Transocean (a Swiss company and owner of the Deep-water rig), Halliburton (the oil service company that poured the concrete), and several of the makers and installers of the defective shut down valves including Cameron Corp. They all pass through the state to get to the offshore platforms, use Louisiana crew boats and helicopters to transfer employees to the rigs. Even though the well site itself is in federal waters, there would seem to be sufficient tie and a public protection argument for Louisiana officials to aggressively review the policies and back up plans in case of a major spill.
Louisiana’s response was weak, but nowhere close to the lack of disaster preparedness shown by the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service and the Department of Homeland Security. It was simply Katrina Redux! The Coast Guard Commandant confirmed that there was no catastrophic plan in place. “It’s hard to write a plan that has no precedent or writing a response for what could never be in a plan, what you couldn’t anticipate.” Look, we spend billions every year to play war games that consider every option and plans for the worst case scenario. Are government officials not capable of doing the same thing for oil spill disasters?
Professor Robert G. Bea is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies offshore drilling. He has been a guest on my radio show following Katrina on a number of occasions. His view is that the Feds “have horribly underestimated the likelihood of a spill and therefore horribly underestimated the consequences of something going wrong. So what we have now is some equivalent of a fire drill with paper towels and buckets for cleanup.”
Oil spill consultant and marine biologist Rick Steiner likens the response and lack of planning from both the public agencies and BP as a day late and a dollar short. He observes “It is like building the fire truck when our house is on fire.” He suggests, as an example, that the Feds could have required that oil companies operating in the Gulf have some version of the containment dome ready before the spill, rather than building one from scratch after it happened.
In the future, we need to elaborate on Sarah Palin’s assertions to Drill Baby Drill. You have to assume there will be a Spill Baby Spill, and therefore the Louisiana and the Feds need an effective game plan in place and a firm understanding of whose going to pay the Bill baby Bill. Otherwise, for the time being, we should Chill Baby Chill.
Oh Beautiful for smoggy skies, insecticided grain,
For strip-mined mountain’s majesty above the asphalt plain.
America, America, man sheds his waste on thee,
And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea.”
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read all is past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com.