BP Oil Spill, Lesson Wasted
The words of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” might as well be the mantra for the many interests angling for change after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a year ago today.
The April 20, 2010, blast unleashed the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. BP lifted its self-imposed moratorium on political campaign donations in time for the commemoration, and continues its advertisement and messaging campaign. Newly wealthy “spillionaires” have quickly emerged, enabled by recovery funding. Amid all this, the environmental health of the gulf remains in doubt, families continue to be deprived of their livelihood, and questions persist about the safety of offshore oil production.
The Deepwater Horizon's owner, Transocean, reported in an SEC filing that 2010 was “the best year in safety performance in our company’s history,” by its own statistical measures. Top Transocean executives were paid large bonuses accordingly. Only after public outrage did the executives donate the safety bonus money to a fund for families of those who died in the blast. The company also announced this month that two of its employees wouldn't cooperate with investigators looking into the cause of the explosion.
The White House has claimed to hold BP accountable, and federal agencies, too. The president's oil spill commission has said a “culture of complacency” at the company contributed to the spill. The spill is mentioned in BP's 2010 annual report, but the potential legal fights over what exactly happened, and to what effect, still remains ahead of us. The company released charts showing 2010 as a comparatively good year for safety.To look at them, no one would realize the spill was so severe.
BP management has returned the company to profitability after taking what for most companies would be terminal financial losses from the spill. The company is even paying quarterly dividends to its stockholders, and wants to expand its drilling in Arctic waters near Russia. By some estimates, it could be stronger than ever financially. But the legal process is just getting underway. The Justice Department is investigating whether to file manslaughter charges in connection with the explosion. The company also faces a shareholder revolt from large investors who don't believe the company handled the spill properly.
The accountability problems don't stop with the companies that created the disaster. A Pro Publica investigation has documented profiteering and wasteful spending with compensation money, creating the “spillionaires.” Earlier this week, the Associated Press revealed that some government officials who received compensation money bought items unrelated to the spill or the cleanup. The money went toward new vehicles, police Tasers, iPads, laptop computers, GPS systems and rock concerts. If it hasn't already, this could surpass the scope of the fraudulent spending from FEMA payouts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Other government officials have been suspiciously lax on BP and Transocean. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has opted not to join a multi-state lawsuit against Transocean, an action that could net the state $1 billion in aid. Instead, Scott has said he'd rather accept a $30 million settlement from Transocean, described by critics as “chump change.” The state will pursue a direct claim against BP, rather than file a lawsuit. Mississippi's Department of Environmental Quality calls what is widely known as the "BP spill" the "Transocean Drilling Incident."
The tragedy of the explosion and oil spill can't be explained away in corporate literature or erased by money. The environmental toll is still unknown, but it could be staggering. The National Wildlife Federation says the ecosystems in the Gulf haven't fully recovered form the spill and may need some help. Of course, the spill took a human toll as well. This Politico profile of key figures in the spill includes the story of one family that is still grieving, while others are suffering financially, their businesses ruined. And what of those who can't work in the oil industry? Oil companies and their backers blame President Obama's policies for a lag in offshore drilling, but under any administration, it might not pick up again unless the industry can get its act together on safety.
The pain of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill is fresh after one year, and it will probably still be felt after a decade or more. The companies that caused it, and the people who must clean it, need to step up their efforts, even in advance of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. That means accounting for competing spill estimates in safety records, even where they challenge the company's estimates. It means paying proper compensation to those clearly hurt by the spill even if they don't meet every letter of the requirements: There's never been a spill like this and a lot of people have suffered harm that nobody ever thought of before. It also means that those who are compensated must be accurate and honest, and spend it prudently.
There are plenty of lessons from this crisis so far, and plenty more to learn. But the opportunity for holistic, national understanding and reform is what's really being wasted.
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