In Deep Water

by Ariana Pekary, producer


It’s been a month now that the Deepwater Horizon well has been gushing thousands of gallons everyday of thick crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Some scientists estimate the open spigot is releasing 70,000 barrels per day, but BP is sticking to its guestimate of 5,000 a day.  Friday, another group of scientists split the difference (sort of), saying the spill is releasing between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day – making it the worst oil spill in U.S. history. President Obama has made an effort to help control the pending destruction and visited the Gulf region for a second time on Friday.  Meanwhile, White House aides indicated this week he’s growing very impatient with the progress.  Sitting in the Oval Office, an unnamed staffer said the President snapped, “Plug the damn hole.” 


The longer it takes to stop the flow of one of our most precious natural resources and the more details that emerge about the regulators’ relationships with the gas and oil industry, the more one can understand that frustration.  The Department of the Interior’s Inspector General released an internal audit on Wednesday that revealed numerous ethics violations by federal regulators.  Officials with the “Minerals Management Service” (that name sounds funny in hindsight – who’s serving who? And who’s managing who?) were cited for accepting gifts from the gas and oil companies and even letting workers on the rigs fill out their own inspection forms (in pencil before the Federal inspectors completed them in pen).  That report doesn’t include the MMS drug and porn scandal also reported recently. 


It’s no wonder that “cozy” relationship exists. The same agency is responsible for collecting royalties AND (in theory) regulating the oil drillers.  It’s an inherent conflict of interest.  If you stand to collect billions of dollars the more oil rigs you allow to operate, then why would you want to restrict any of them from setting up shop in a way that is most efficient for them?  (As it is, the agency now earns more than $12 billion dollars a year in royalties, making it the Number Two income generator for the U.S. Treasury; Number One income earner is the IRS, of course.)  In any event, it makes one wonder how anyone could have established that agency in that way with a straight face.


A re-organization of the agency seems to be in the works since the Director was forced to resign Thursday morning. During a press conference on Thursday afternoon, the President said he didn’t know the details behind Liz Birnbaum’s departure.  He may not be dictating what happens on the personnel level, maybe, but for those watching and waiting, new leadership at MMS would make sense to many people.  As for the Department head, Ken Salazar, his job is safe, says Obama.


Secretary Salazar, in response to some of these revelations, suggests setting up “environmental and safety office within MMS that would be separate from its leasing and royalty division.” That seems like a good start.  So do the tighter regulations that Obama proposed on Thursday.


Currently the regulations the companies are supposed to adhere obviously don’t really mean that much to effectively avert and respond to a spill.  McClatchy Newspapers reported earlier this month that the MMS let the oil industry write their own offshore drilling rules.


No matter what your opinion is related to offshore drilling or what alternative energy solutions may be developed in the future, the fact is that we are going to need oil for the near term.  So to best protect the workers (don’t forget the eleven who died on April 20), the sea turtles, and the shorelines of our nation, something needs to change.  Perhaps it’s worth noting the advice of Frances Beinecke.  She’s the President of the Natural Resources Defense Council (Bob interviewed her this past December), and she’s written a sensible proposal for moving forward on the offshore drilling issue. 


Going into the weekend, BP hasn’t yet determined if the “top kill” initiated on Wednesday is working but they gave an apology, even if it didn’t seem genuine to everyone watching.  It’s at least a gesture and an acknowledgement that public sentiment on this issue is important.  (That could also explain why photojournalists are being restricted from areas where the oil is making its most visible mark on the coastline.)  To see images of the thick goo mucking up Gulf Coast pelicans and beaches, see ProPublica’s site


Lastly, thanks to our guests for joining us in studio.  Richard Charter is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Marine Programs at Defenders of Wildlife and he has more than 25 years of experience working on offshore drilling issues and oil spill crises.  Jacqueline Savitz is a Senior Marine Scientist for Oceana, where she focuses on toxicology.