Month 8, Day 26: Institutional Irresponsibility and the Culture of Malign Neglect

The Washington Post ran an article on the corruption in the Minerals Management Service — their willingness to let industry insiders write the regulations they were supposed to enforce. It’s infuriating.

The readiness of the Minerals Management Service to take dictation from corporate interests when it comes time to draft regulatory language is tragic but unsurprising. Republican appointees like James Watt are virtually without exception industry insiders who can expect to profit handsomely from their willingness to sacrifice the genuine environmental wealth of this country — wealth which by rights belongs to all of us. This affects every aspect of our government and our politics. Perhaps the most damaging manifestation of this systemic dysfunction is the inability of the U.S. Senate to pass meaningful legislation addressing climate change. By compromising, delaying and procrastinating, our politicians have enabled the continuing destruction of humanity’s common environmental inheritance in order to preserve the profits of some of the world’s largest corporations. The Senate is the Minerals Management Service writ large, and we are all of us the losers thereby.

Warren Senders

Month 6, Day 13: I’m Told That Fish Rot From The Head.

Crooks and Liars had a very depressing piece about our Interior Secretary and his continued enabling of a Bush-style culture of corruption. Grrrrrr.

Their piece links to Rolling Stone magazine, which is the original source. I haven’t read the full RS piece yet, because I’ve been dealing with the benefit concert (which went fabulously, by the way).

Anyway, this goes off to the President tomorrow.

Dear President Obama,

When you announced a “moratorium” on offshore drilling, I was delighted. But as the details emerged, it began to look less and less like a really robust piece of environmental policy. What we need is a way to prevent future disasters; what we get is a halt of exploratory drilling at thirty-three deepwater rigs. Total number of deepwater rigs in the Gulf of Mexico? Five hundred and ninety-one. Total offshore drilling rigs? Over fifty-one hundred. Thirty-three is a very small number — less than one percent. It should be the job of the Interior Secretary to regulate and control the oil industry, but Secretary Salazar is on record that the moratorium won’t affect production.

The culture of corruption at the Minerals Management Service has continued; Secretary Salazar has long been an advocate of offshore drilling (going back to his time as a senator), and he is abusing his position in multiple ways. The BP Atlantis rig is located in waters 2,000 feet deeper than the Deepwater Horizon, only 150 miles from the Louisiana coastline. Congressional documents reveal that the Atlantis lacks required engineering certification for almost every one of its underwater components; British Petroleum’s own internal documents suggest that this failure of certification could lead to “catastrophic” errors. Why has the Atlantis not been shut down? Why has the MMS failed to address the safety risks of this platform since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe?

According to the executive director of PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), workers in many agencies inside the Department of the Interior (not just the Minerals Management Service) describe the culture as the “third Bush term.” The same managers are implementing the same policies. Is that the environmental legacy we need from the Obama Administration?

I recognize that much of this is not, strictly speaking, your fault. President Bush and his cronies have planted many of their ideological allies in key bureaucratic positions throughout the government, and it is difficult to root these people out and to transform the bureaucratic culture appropriately. But it is increasingly clear that Ken Salazar isn’t interested in effecting this transformation at all.

At a time when we urgently need a genuine climate and energy policy that builds the infrastructure of the future, the last thing we need is a relentless advocate of big oil, a proponent of offshore drilling, an ethically challenged enabler of corruption. Ken Salazar needs to go, and the Minerals Management Service needs to be dissolved.

This is no time or place for compromise.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

Month 4, Day 23: Don’t Drill, Baby! Don’t Drill!

The program of exploratory drilling off the US coastline that was announced earlier by President Obama was the subject of a beautiful and poignant post by DK’s R.L.Miller. Go read it. She urges people to participate in this program:

The U.S. Department of Interior, Minerals Management Service, invites interested parties to participate in the 2012-2017 Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Program Environmental Impact Statement (2012-2017 OCS Oil and Gas Programmatic EIS) scoping process. The scoping process is intended to involve all interested agencies (Federal, state, county, and local), public interest groups, Native American tribes, businesses, and members of the public. The public scoping period started with the publication of the Notice of Intent in the Federal Register.

The purpose of the public scoping process is to determine relevant issues that will influence the scope of the environmental analysis and the alternatives. Comments on the relationship between the Oil and Gas Program and the Alternative Energy Program are also welcome. Comments will be accepted at public scoping meetings, by mail, and electronically through a public comment form on this Web site.

In other words, go to the MMS site and object vociferously to the proposed Exploratory Drilling program. There’s a form there. As usual, I encourage you to use my words, paraphrasing as necessary. Object! Object! Object! The offshore drilling program is a piece of delusional chicanery that needs to be stopped.

Here’s what I wrote; I will submit this electronically and with a hard copy in the mail.

I write to express very strong objections to exploratory oil drilling anywhere off the U.S. coast, but especially on the Atlantic seaboard. There are numerous reasons why the proposed program should be shelved.

First: the issue of safety, for humans, oceanic ecosystems and coastlines.

Within the past month, there have been two oil disasters on the Atlantic seaboard, only one of which received any coverage in the media. An 18,000 gallon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was barely noticed, arguably because the news release was controlled by the Coast Guard, the state of Louisiana and the pipeline operator, Cypress Pipe Line Company. The April 6 spill covered about 120 square miles and affected a significant portion of a National Wildlife Refuge, home to a variety of animals, and an important nursery for both freshwater and saltwater fish. A few days later, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded while doing exploratory drilling about 50 miles out, eventually collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil released from this catastrophe is likely to reach the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. The promises of accident-free and ecologically neutral exploratory drilling are unrealistic pipe dreams, as a little study shows.

According to Minerals Management Service records, there have been 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries and 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf in the past nine years. Not so safe.

Second: the issue of long-term sustainability.

It is by now accepted knowledge that the point of diminishing returns on fossil fuel exploitation has probably been reached. The future of energy no longer is the province of oil and coal, for not only are we at the “peak oil” point already, it is irrefutable that the overconsumption of oil and coal has dangerously increased atmospheric CO2, laying the foundation for catastrophic global warming. The essential processes of developing renewable energy technology need to happen as fast as possible if America and the world are to survive the coming centuries, and hunting for more oil to burn is a dangerous distraction. We need to stop putting carbon in the atmosphere, and we need to stop wasting the fossil fuel reserves we have. A well-managed efficiency initiative would probably save more fuel per annum than we could find with exploratory drilling programs.

Third: the likelihood of financial mismanagement and possible fraud.

In theory, drilling on leased lands generates income, thus benefiting taxpayers. In theory. In practice, a recent GAO audit revealed that the Mineral Management Service often fails to accurately track production of oil and gas leases on federal land. In some cases, oil companies are taking advantage of a badly written 1995 statute to avoid paying any royalties at all for drilling on public lands.

Fourth: the ethical implications of abandoning a science-based energy policy in favor of one built around political expediency.

President Obama explicitly campaigned on a promise to respect science (something completely inconceivable under the Bush administration). After the election he even wrote a memo on scientific integrity. But in October 2009, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration warned the President to exclude the Atlantic seaboard from offshore drilling — and he ignored that warning in his March 31, 2010 announcement of the exploratory drilling program. The NOAA further recommended caution in drilling off the environmentally sensitive Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and that recommendation was also ignored.

The administration’s failure to live up to its own promises of respect for basic science may be a sop to powerful energy interests, but it is a terrible disappointment to those of us who expected higher standards of intellectual integrity.

The reasons for the exploratory drilling program? I can think of one: it will make big oil companies happier.

Frankly, that’s not a very good reason to proceed with an initiative that has high failure risks, is virtually certain to cause severe environmental damage, enables a climatically damaging national addiction to oil, holds enormous potential for fraud, waste and abuse, and runs counter to everything this administration claimed to stand for.

Sincerely Yours,

Warren Senders