June 7, 2010

The Oil Leak and the Blame Game: Déjà vu All Over Again

by Hal Gershowitz

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We are almost seven weeks and counting into the massive oil spill wreaking havoc in the Gulf of Mexico and causing an unprecedented ecological disaster along the Louisiana coast.  Neither the owners of the well, BP America, or their contractual partners, rig owner, Transocean LTD or oil servicer, Halliburton Co., have yet been able to stop the flow, and so the duration and total damages, measured either in economic or environmental terms are yet to be known.

It should be obvious by now that getting control of the leak and, even after six weeks, limiting the disaster should be the only short-term objective of the President of the United States, federal regulators and Congress.  Finding the root cause to prevent a reoccurrence, assigning blame and allocating liability for damages can wait until all the facts are in.  As might be expected, however, all of the responsible parties have a different focus.

As far as the oil company executives are concerned, they feed us a daily dose of technological drivel, public relations statements and finger pointing.  At Congressional hearings each of the three companies blamed one another.  The truth is, since the accident occurred at a depth of almost one mile below the ocean’s surface, none of them know for sure what went wrong.  And how could they?  In an aviation disaster weeks and months go by before there is something akin to a conclusive finding, even though investigators from the airline involved and air traffic regulators are usually aided by either one or more of a black box (which offers a treasure trove of information), survivor accounts, witnesses, or air traffic recordings.  Moreover, with the nation’s contingency fee trial lawyers on the sidelines taking in every word of testimony for the soon to come class-action lawsuits and with the president publicly demanding, ex post facto, to raise the legal liability limit for the well’s owners and operators, it is a wonder they “voluntarily” testified at all.

With regard to the gulf oil spill we have no physical proof yet of what caused a cascade of problems, so why are almost all our elected officials focused on allocating blame.  Clearly, it is not for the purpose of learning from this disaster to prevent a reoccurrence.  Instead, as is almost invariably the case in Washington, a huge and important fact finding investigation is hijacked to score political points.

This is just the latest example of Washington’s favorite game:  finger pointing and assigning blame for short-term political advantage.  It is all so well practiced and choreographed.  Every responsible official scurries to the first available microphone at the earliest possible time to assign the responsibility to his or her favorite political target.  This time it is “Big Oil.”  Other times it is “Big Pharma” or “Big Banks.”  Watch out when politicians rail against “Big” anything because it signals open season on an industry well before the facts are in.  By the time a full and thoughtful report can be written, our national leaders have moved on to a new target to investigate, always making sure the bright light of scrutiny never falls on themselves.  We don’t even have to watch the televised Congressional hearings or read about them in the following day’s news reports.  The investigatory process is all so predictable.

The Congressional hearings of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce held on May 12 was a perfect example of the pure theatre which passes for intelligent oversight and investigation in Congress.  Any school child would expect that (1.) Congressmen or Senators conducting an investigation where the evidence isn’t anywhere near fully available and where they have the opportunity to question the company executives most familiar with the technical details, risks and dangers of such a complicated enterprise as drilling for oil a mile below the ocean would  (2.) first carefully listen to the witnesses and then (3.) began their tough questioning based on the testimony presented.  But as is invariably the case, our elected representatives have a more important objective:  how to position the investigation to trash the political opposition and derive short-term political gain at the next election.  This is politics as a sporting event, producing winners and losers, never mind the needs of their constituents, the voters who have the most to gain from finding the truth, whatever that might be.

And so we are treated on C-Span, our national ESPN of political sport, to the stars of Congress testifying and “speechifying,” yielding the floor to their colleagues with the perfect footwork of soccer players heading downfield for a score.  Twenty-nine representatives were present at the hearings on May 29.  The Chairman of the full Committee, the omnipresent Henry Waxman, in full throated indignation and high dudgeon (an emotion he seems to maintain almost fulltime) subcommittee Chairman Burt Stupak (who can focus on the oil leak now that he is free of his responsibilities as the principal spokesman for the lives of the unborn) and Chairman Emeritus John Dingell (who over several decades in Congress has provided the nation thrills galore in his never ending zeal to excoriate corporate executives of almost every industry) were each given ten minutes for opening statements, followed by three minutes each for the remaining members.  In prepared statements, they referred to the more than 100,000 pages of documents the subcommittee had already received (they don’t say whether they had yet read a single page), they pronounced judgment.  Never mind that the witnesses hadn’t yet spoken a word.  Convict first (while the cameras are on) and bring charges later.

As for the president, we were expected to be assured by his mounting anger, in perfect lock step with growing public frustration that he is on the case.  Although attending a San Francisco fundraiser was more important than visiting the gulf (just imagine the outcry if George Bush were still in office), he has managed to create photo ops for himself picking up tar balls and telling the oil companies in a voice filled with emotion to “fill that hole.”  Not quite as dramatic an order as “Mr. Gorbachev tear down that wall,” but, we expect, the elapsed time between the command and the result at least will be shorter.

It is the ultimate irony that our president, who exudes intelligence, and cool competence, is being undone and losing our confidence by his own finger pointing.  Intelligent people know that he did not cause the oil spill nor could we reasonably have expected him or his Administration to have in place in the first 16 months in office procedures to prevent this accident.  Katrina happened, earthquakes happen, planes and trains crash, ferries overturn …life is what happens when you are making other plans.  Thus, when this president resorts to such obvious dissembling as to blame the oil disaster on policies put in place “over the last decade,” e.g., the Bush-Cheney years, he is taking a cheap political shot and speaking to a public he seems to believe can be fooled.

What is ironic is that the oil spill is such a perfect and visible example of why Washington doesn’t work.  The government is not omnipotent.  It can’t promise us a risk and liability free life in which, from cradle to grave, it can prevent problems, provide for equal comfort for all, smooth out the inequalities that life serves up to each of us and mandate all results and solutions.  Despite all of the trillions spent in the name of government as our nanny, our patron, and our protector, we are not more protected, nor safer, nor secure within the boundaries of our great nation.

As Peggy Noonan so eloquently stated it in the May 29 edition of the Wall Street Journal:

And now we have a videotape metaphor for all the public’s fears:  that clip we see every day, on every news show, of the well gushing black oil into the Gulf of Mexico and toward our shore.  You actually don’t get deadlier as a metaphor for the moment than that, the monster that lives deep beneath the sea.

Our country had plenty of challenges on its plate before the gulf oil spill, which required thoughtful statesmanlike solutions from leaders in whom Americans had already lost confidence.  Based on the unprecedented corrosiveness of our body politic, city and state, as well as federal, we have expressed in several prior essays, our pessimism regarding the ability of our leaders to take real action to solve any problem. Whether the villains du jour are the titans of Wall Street or the gate crashers at a White House state dinner, our elected representatives are quick, if not frantic, to parade those they have designated as the evil doers before their respective committees to create a media event at which they can posture and speechify (assuming the cameras are running).  Observing the behavior of those same politicians in this environmental crisis, we, sadly, must conclude that Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 19th century editor of Le Figaro, was enduringly perceptive when he coined his famous epigram, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

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5 responses to “The Oil Leak and the Blame Game: Déjà vu All Over Again”

  1. Ben Donenberg says:

    Well put. It’s easier to blame than take personal responsibility and the time to develop a unified series of investigative questions designed to illuminate. What happened to leadership?

  2. irwin yablans says:

    What do you mean when you say” we have no physical proof of what caused what caused the cascade of problems “….The oil well broke,
    that’s what happened.It was bound to happen somewhere,someday, to some company and I suppose Murphy’s law picked B. P. this time
    Agreed, Hypocricy abounds. We all need and use oil products,wether we are democratic,republican,conservative or liberal and will be doing so for many years to come. I guess there was some lack of contingincy planning and BP will pay a hefty price for there negligence.Some new fail safe attempts will now be made to try to avert a repeat of this disaster but until we find the magic elixir to replace oil we will all be a party to the necesary risks that go along with our very valid dependency on this rescource.

  3. Of Course the oil well broke. But there are nearly 4,000 drilling platforms in the Gulf all with multiple wells, some with as many as 20 producing wells. If 10 wells were the average per platform there would be 40,000 wells in the gulf. What caused the BP well to blow. That’s what we don’t know yet. And the only way we’ll have any chance of preventing a reoccurrence will be to find out why this well blew. Determining the answer to this question should be a far more immediate focus than launching immediate criminal probes or “congressional investigations” to find culprits. Find the cause. Then we’ll know where to look for culprits.

  4. Dan Newell says:

    Washington’s response to the oil spill mess is why many departments in the federal government don’t like to “work with Congress” (eg, CIA, DOD, NSA). Too often Congress becomes part of the problem when there is a sudden disaster and not part of the solution. In the long term – yes, hopefully, thru new laws synthesized after careful and thoughtful analysis of facts.

    Here are some extracts I found interesting from Calvin Woodward’s May 31, 2010 article entitled “Oil Disaster Shows a Divide From Physical World”:

    “The president and many lawmakers are lawyers by training, not engineers, roustabouts or farmers. No wonder members of Congress met to discuss legal liability among their first orders of business in the oil spill response. For many in Washington, the talk is of blame, accountability and political consequences.”

    “If Aristotle were blogging about all of this, he would probably have little patience with the armchair experts and the pontificators who think the solution should be as easy as Malia Obama suggested when she asked her father, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”

    The Greek philosopher said “those who dwell in intimate association with nature” are apt to understand the big picture. “Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view.” “

  5. Chris Purcell says:

    No doubt this is a well thought out article. However, expressing high dudgeon against our elected representatives, the President, or the cynical oil companies does no good. The fact that they’re all victims of their own particular brand of incompetence and self-serving actions is simply a fact of our life. Put different people in their places and the outcome would likely be the same. Witness the decisions of the erstwhile Bush Administration – Iraq, Katrina, trillions in the red, etc. People screw up! And, frankly, since we all depend on oil in one way or another, we’re all in this together. Pointing fingers is like pointing them at ourselves.

    What would you have Congress, the President, or BP do to staunch the oil flow? The fact is, there is no immediate solution. The technology that allows us to drill for oil and recover it in virtually inaccessible locations far outstrips what should be a complementary technology to contend with drilling and extraction accidents. And that is a failure of Congress – to have neglected legislation mandating the ability to cope with conceivable accidents consistent with the capability of the extraction technology. In short, if a company gets a permit to drill in very deep water, they would have to prove (not just state, as BP did) that they can cope with any conceivable accident at that depth. A logical solution, since they always resort to it in these situations, is to force the oil companies to drill relief wells along with the main one. As it is, BP has to drill the relief wells after millions of gallons of oil have escaped and after an accident that can cost them up to $50B. Some trade-off they made!

    Next, any law is effective only to the extent it’s enforced. And we certainly see in this, and other extraction industry episodes such as Alaska pipeline spills and the recent W. VA Massey Mine disaster, that the Government’s enforcement agency, the Minerals Management Service, makes the Keystone Kops looks like the Marines. And in its handling of the disaster to date, not to mention that their field manager apparently made the fateful decisions which caused the disaster, BP has proven itself the equal of any Keystone Kop emulator.

    There’s little doubt that the consequences of a well blowout at the depths of the BP well could have been anticipated. Witness the amount of University analyses and simulations that we see on TV (much better than listening to the TV supermouths). I saw credible simulations from the University of Georgia and Tulane U. being demonstrated. How many others are available?

    So, had the key players, BP and the MMS, just simply asked a few ‘what if’ questions before this drilling permit was granted, it’s possible that those modelers and analysts could have given them really scary answers. Then again, perhaps they didn’t want those answers.

    Since the main players in this sorry episode will be pointing fingers at each other, as discussed in the article, until hell freezes there needs to be an objective evaluator of what went wrong and how the present disaster can be fixed if the August/Sept/Dec (?) relief wells don’t relieve the crisis, and how to prevent future such episodes. That evaluator is a Commission similar to the 9/11 Commission run by Lee Hamilton and Gov. Tom Keane. They came up with a set of recommendations that are being slowly implemented. After all, there’s turf involved, just as there is in this sorry BP Oil disaster. But such a Commission needs to get going soon. Selection of its mandate and members will be an enlightening revelation.

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