Learning the lessons of the Gulf oil-gusher

Of course the BP oil spill is not merely metaphorical, but it does capture something about the un-governability of modern America.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

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With its uncontrolled oil gusher still fouling the Gulf of Mexico and its blunders impossible to cover up, BP resorted to understatement, admitting to Congressional investigators that continuing work on the well after a test indicated a ‘very large abnormality’ was, perhaps, a ‘fundamental mistake’. Perhaps, but it doesn’t seem to have been an innocent or isolated mistake: the project was behind schedule and over budget, and BP reportedly made a deliberate series of time-saving, cost-cutting decisions that led to the catastrophic explosion.

We’ll never know if BP would have operated differently had it been answerable to the government agency charged with overseeing its highly risky deep-water drilling in the Gulf. We do know that, during the Bush years, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) operated more like a subsidiary of the oil companies than a regulator, and a drunken subsidiary at that. (We also know that the Obama administration failed to reform and may even have perpetuated these abuses.) MMS officials were, quite literally, sleeping with energy firm employees and, not surprisingly, ‘steer[ing] contracts to favoured clients’, according to a 2008 Inspector General’s report: a ‘culture of substance abuse and promiscuity’ prevailed at the agency, where gratuities were accepted ‘with prodigious frequency’.

So it was not exactly news when the New York Times reported last month that a subsequent Inspector General’s report in 2010 found that ‘federal regulators responsible for oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials several years ago to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil – and then turned them over to the regulators, who traced over them in pen before submitting the reports to the agency’. Nor was it surprising to learn that one week before the explosion, MMS officials took all of five minutes to approve a key design change to the well.

Negligence, incompetence, venality and conflicts of interest – these are the four horsemen of our recurring disasters. The catastrophe in the Gulf is a shock, but more like business as usual (on the grand scale) than a surprise. It’s hard not to expect the worst after a decade marked by tragic, short-sighted and self-interested mismanagement of the Iraq invasion, including the channelling of billions of dollars to private contractors, notably Halliburton (where Dick Cheney perched as chief executive prior to selecting himself for the vice presidency), an economic collapse facilitated by recklessness, ignorance and greed, and the routine shoddiness and graft that turned Boston’s Big Dig (the renovation of the city’s central highways) into a 20-year, $20billion project, with fatal flaws – to note just a few of the entirely avoidable calamities that have greatly enriched a small minority of people at great cost to everyone else. American exceptionalism is beginning to stand for exceptional ineptitude and dishonesty in conducting wars, managing the economy, building and maintaining infrastructure, regulating industry and protecting the environment.

Right-wingers blame government, having effectively used their power during the Bush years to make their claims of government incompetence come true. Left-wingers blame the market, along with the rush to deregulate and privatise (and the political cowardice of liberals). ‘We have now suffered through a cataclysmic series of market failures’, Thomas Frank writes, ‘each disaster abetted by business-friendly regulators whose complacency was ensured by the same rotten ideology – if not simply purchased outright by business interests.’

It may be tempting to dismiss this as cynicism, but the cynics are the people engaging in corruption, not the people lamenting it. Voters need to be armed with scepticism; the trouble is, when people in control don’t act responsibly and people inclined to act responsibly lack control, scepticism becomes nihilism or, when it’s coupled with ignorance, corrosive political idiocies and what Hannah Arendt recognised as a dangerous combination of nihilism and gullibility, which is increasingly influential in America today.

In Alabama, a campaign ad by an obscure, tough-talking, rifle-toting, horseback-riding, ex-marine running for an obscure office (state agriculture commissioner) receives over a million YouTube hits, generating national press and a Facebook campaign urging him to run for president. (Appearing in one catchy campaign ad may qualify you to be president, but not, it seems, agricultural commissioner: he lost the election.) In Virginia, the attorney general challenges the constitutionality of healthcare reform, explaining: I don’t think in my lifetime we’ve seen one statute that so erodes liberty [as much as] this healthcare bill.’ (It’s worth noting that other laws enacted in his lifetime include the Military Commissions Act, empowering the president to designate and detain ‘enemy combatants’ and deny them habeas corpus rights to judicial review, as well as rights under the Geneva Convention.)

In Idaho, Tea Partiers, unconstrained by logic, couple their demand for small government with opposition to direct democracy: a Tea Party Congressional candidate proposes empowering state legislatures, instead of voters, to choose US senators (this ‘reform’ would entail a repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment, a 1913, progressive-era initiative that mandated direct election of senators). And, in Sarah Palin Land, the woman whose mantra was ‘drill baby drill’ accuses the Obama administration of being in the pocket of the oil industry.

Palin’s comments meandered, as usual, but her meaning was clear: ‘[T]he oil companies who have so supported President Obama in his campaign and are supportive of him now – I don’t know why the question isn’t asked by the mainstream media and by others if there’s any connection with the contributions made to President Obama and his administration and the support by the oil companies to the administration’, Palin said on Fox News. ‘If there’s any connection there to President Obama taking so doggone long to get in there, to dive in there, and grasp the complexity and the potential tragedy that we are seeing here in the Gulf of Mexico…’. But (doggone it), according to politifact.com, while Obama collected about $35,000 more than McCain in contributions from individual BP employees, that $35,000 was an insignificant fraction of the $750million raised by the Obama campaign. And, ‘as an industry, about three quarters of the oil and gas money has gone to Republicans since 1990… That disparity held true in the 2008 presidential campaign, as McCain and his running-mate Palin accepted $2.4million in contributions from the oil industry, more than double the nearly $900,000 that went to Obama.’

But these are mere facts, by which Palin, and so many others, are boldly unfazed. As a senior Bush adviser famously explained to journalist Ron Suskind, ‘we create our own reality’ to the bewilderment and frustration of people stuck in ‘the reality-based community’, who naively believe ‘that solutions emerge from [the] judicious study of discernible reality’.

‘Après nous, le déluge’, he might as well have said. Reality can’t be kept at bay forever; like the oil threatening the Louisiana marshes, it’s stubbornly invasive. By then, by now, judicious efforts to fashion ‘reality-based’ solutions may only mitigate disaster, at best. The BP oil gusher is not the end of the world, but it is very likely the end of life as the Gulf and the Louisiana coast have known it, for years or decades to come.

Not that the damage will be limited to Louisiana; it already extends to other Gulf states and is likely to move into the Gulf Stream and affect the eastern seaboard. The Gulf gusher is indisputably the worst spill in US history (much worse than the Exxon Valdez), estimated to be spewing 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, with no reliable end in sight. The oil now seems likely to flow at least until mid-August – if work on relief drills isn’t impeded by hurricanes, negligence or BP’s cluelessness, and if the relief wells prove effective.

That real solutions are not manufactured as easily as fictional successes, that the government (as well as the people most affected by the oil gusher) have no ability to stop it, that the explosion was an accident only in the sense that killing someone while driving drunk is an accident – these things merely exacerbate a palpable sense of helplessness and despair not limited to Louisiana residents. And, while there’s nothing merely metaphoric about the Gulf oil gusher, it does signal our apparent un-governability and underscore the folly of technological utopianism. Innovation and technological advances are supposed to ensure victory over our environmental and economic challenges, but human creativity and intelligence are too often defeated by human corruption and incompetence. Or so it seems, these days.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Letter from America

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