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Senate Committee Hearing on BP Oil Disaster II: It Still Hasn’t Sunk In


CSPAN 3 has live coverage of today’s House Subcommittee hearing, questioning the heads of BP, Halliburton, Transocean and Cameron (the manufacturer of the blowout preventer).

Live CSPAN 3 feed is here:

The consensus media view is that the three main companies who share some responsibility for the still gushing oil disaster pointed their fingers at each other with no one taking responsibility. That was to be expected, because the executives for BP, Transocean and Halliburton realize there are billions of dollars in potential liability to be shared among them.

So the Committee hearings Tuesday contained no explicit admissions that anyone had done something wrong in the days and hours leading up to the catastrophic blowout. Nevertheless, the second hearing of the day, by the Senate Environmental Committee, helped focus on the breakdown in the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). It exposed a legal timebomb.

We already know that this particular drilling project, like many others in the Gulf, had been subjected to only cursory NEPA review. The process allowed a generic but inadequate environmental impact assessment (EIS) to be performed to permit leasing and drilling over a wide region. Once that broad-area hurdle was cleared, individual wells would be covered with only minor additional reviews by the Mineral Management Service (MMS).

So if industry could weaken the generic EIS — by essentially writing it for Interior/MMS — it could establish the industry storyline that massive blowouts are unthinkable, that minor blowouts are unlikely, and that whatever spills might result from such minor events could be readily contained and their impacts mitigated with readily available and tested strategies. Hence, there are no unacceptable environmental impacts, and the impacts that might occur in that very unlikely event are acceptable and can be mitigated with proven methods.

That’s the pattern all industries have used to weaken NEPA. But the reality of the BP disaster proves, as every coal mining disaster proves, that story was a massive, lethal fraud. None of it was true. Catastrophic accidents are possible; indeed they may be inevitable, given the dangerous, sometimes unknowable conditions in which deepwater drilling (and mining) occurs.

And once these inevitable catastrophes happen, we’re well beyond the capabilities of traditional responses, remedies and mitigation measures. We’re making it up. We still don’t know how to stop a continuing catastrophe, and we’re woefully unprepared to deal with the consequences, let alone to make the surrounding environment whole again. In addition to the immediate deaths, vast areas can be rendered "dead zones," and whole communities, for hundreds of miles of coastline, can be economically and environmentally devastated.

The Obama Administration made a token gesture yesterday (was it to divert attention?), arguably helpful, proposing to split up MMS so that the office that collects royalties doesn’t conflict or influence the office that oversees safety. Fine, do it. But the degradation of NEPA and the acceptance of a benevolent, fraudulent view of dangers and their consequences could have occurred — and does occur — under bifurcated organizations and combined agencies alike.

The fundamental problem is corporate power and influence over deliberately weakened government regulators and policy makers. There are massive amounts of money at stake, functioning in a political process that allows that money to corrupt our politics and governing institutions. Nothing has been proposed by this Administration or enacted by Congress to fix those problems.

In the meantime, what needs to sink into our government’s collective consciousness is that the BP Oil Disaster has now defined a clear and compelling legal challenge to the deadly inadequacy of every EIS and safety review on which the entire offshore drilling program floats.

No agency can now claim that what we’re doing is safe, that catastrophic accidents can’t occur, or even that they’re unlikely. No agency can assert that we know what to do when it happens, that industry knows how to stop the catastrophe, or that we can contain the damage to reasonable/acceptable levels. Even if somehow the industry manages to staunch BP’s gushing flow with its latest schemes, there’s no assurance the next catastrophe will fit this pattern and be fixable the same way.

Those arguments are now as dead in the water as the fish and wildlife that will increasingly wash up on the shores of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. And no further deepwater drilling can legally occur — assuming we’re still a nation of laws — as long as that’s true. Let that sink in, Congress.


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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley