Slick Operator: The BP I’ve Known Too Well
I’ve seen this movie before. In 1989, I was a fraud investigator hired to dig into the cause of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Despite Exxon’s name on that boat, I found the party most to blame for the destruction was … British Petroleum (BP).
That’s important to know, because the way BP caused devastation in Alaska is exactly the way BP is now sliming the entire Gulf Coast.
Tankers run aground, wells blow out, pipes burst. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. And when it does, the name of the game is containment. Both in Alaska, when the Exxon Valdez grounded, and in the Gulf last week, when the Deepwater Horizon platform blew, it was British Petroleum that was charged with carrying out the Oil Spill Response Plans (OSRP), which the company itself drafted and filed with the government.
What’s so insane, when I look over that sickening slick moving toward the Delta, is that containing spilled oil is really quite simple and easy. And from my investigation, BP has figured out a very low-cost way to prepare for this task: BP lies. BP prevaricates, BP fabricates and BP obfuscates.
That’s because responding to a spill may be easy and simple, but not at all cheap. And BP is cheap. Deadly cheap.
To contain a spill, the main thing you need is a lot of rubber, long skirts of it called a “boom.” Quickly surround a spill, leak or burst, then pump it out into skimmers, or disperse it, sink it or burn it. Simple.
But there’s one thing about the rubber skirts: you’ve got to have lots of them at the ready, with crews on standby in helicopters and on containment barges ready to roll. They have to be in place round the clock, all the time, just like a fire department, even when all is operating A-O.K. Because rapid response is the key. In Alaska, that was BP’s job, as principal owner of the pipeline consortium Alyeska. It is, as well, BP’s job in the Gulf, as principal lessee of the deepwater oil concession.
Before the Exxon Valdez grounding, BP’s Alyeska group claimed it had these full-time, oil spill response crews. Alyeska had hired Alaskan natives, trained them to drop from helicopters into the freezing water and set booms in case of emergency. Alyeska also certified in writing that a containment barge with equipment was within five hours sailing of any point in the Prince William Sound. Alyeska also told the state and federal government it had plenty of boom and equipment cached on Bligh Island.
But it was all a lie. On that March night in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in the Prince William Sound, the BP group had, in fact, not a lick of boom there. And Alyeska had fired the natives who had manned the full-time response teams, replacing them with phantom crews, lists of untrained employees with no idea how to control a spill. And that containment barge at the ready was, in fact, laid up in a drydock in Cordova, locked under ice, 12 hours away.
As a result, the oil from the Exxon Valdez, which could have and should have been contained around the ship, spread out in a sludge tide that wrecked 1,200 miles of shoreline.
And here we go again. Valdez goes Cajun.
And… “BP bribes”:
From Marian Wang at ProPublica… It is the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service that is the “regulator” in these things…
MMS was in quite a bit of trouble for ethical violations by its officials. The scandal involved sex, drugs and (quite literally) sleeping with the very industry it was regulating. Here’s how The New York Times summarized the government’s investigation:
The investigation also concluded that several of the officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.” The investigation separately found that the program’s manager mixed official and personal business. In sometimes lurid detail, the report also accuses him of having intimate relations with two subordinates, one of whom regularly sold him cocaine.
That hasn’t been the end of MMS’s troubles. According to an audit earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office, the regulator has hardly been a straight shooter on offshore drilling and the risks involved. The GAO found that MMS withheld data on offshore drilling in Alaska from regional staff members at the agency involved in environmental analyses. The report also found that MMS lacked sufficient guidelines to properly analyze the risks of drilling in the region.
“We found considerable variation among MMS’s … regions in how they assess what constitutes a ‘significant’ environmental impact,” reads the report. And on the withholding of data: “Some of its own scientists have alleged that their findings have been suppressed.” (In a formal response to the report, the Department of the Interior said it “generally agrees” with the findings.)
The Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog, told us regulation wasn’t a priority for MMS.
The Huffington Post points out that MMS did not require BP-which owns the well that blew up-to file a plan for reacting to a “potential blowout,” meaning an uncontrollable spill. According to The Huffington Post’s reporting, the more limited plan BP filed with MMS predicted that if worse came to worst, a spill would release 162,000 gallons of oil. The Deepwater Horizon spill has already exceeded that prediction.