From Cheney to BP

July 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

When did the BP oil disaster (11 people killed, untold environmental damage) begin? The explosion occurred in April 2010.

But in 2001, one of the first things Dick Cheney did when he became president vice-president was to convene a task force on energy. The process was so important that the government refused to tell the public who was on the task force or who they were consulting. After all, in a democracy, it makes no sense to let the people know what the government is doing or who they’re doing it with.

The task force did produce an energy policy and a document that contains this prescient bullet point:
• Advanced, more energy efficient drilling and production methods:
— reduce emissions;
— practically eliminate spills from offshore platforms; and
— enhance worker safety, lower risk of blowouts, and provide better protection of groundwater resources
Nine years later, those chickens came home to roost, feathers drenched in oil.

There’s probably some larger sociological point here, maybe about how industries “capture” regulatory agencies, though capture suggests that there was some actual struggle going on. With the Cheney-Bush administration, that would be like saying that a rich kid “captured” the extravagant birthday presents he’d been whining for. In both cases, it would be technically more accurate to use the term gift .

(HT: Eric Alterman )


Jim King said...

So what you are saying is a sound policy was put in place, but the current administration didn't do enough monitoring to ensure that the policy was being enforced prior to issuing the drilling permits and failed to follow through once the permits were issued?

Jay Livingston said...

Jim, Not quite. I don't think that giving Interior and MMS to the extractive industries was a sound policy. Then the current administration did not do enough to change that policy and enforce a better one.

Jim King said...

Might I ask what the problem with the policy is, at least the snippet you have displayed? I think the policy is a good one but the execution of the policy is where everything has broken down.

Of course this is assuming that we should be investing in further oil exploration, which I think is unnecessary and more money should be spent on alternative energy. But I digress.

Jay Livingston said...

I have a hard time distinguishing between policy and execution. See the Alterman article I linked to, or Josh Dorner’s article, which says:

"One of the 2005 Energy Policy Act provisions that is most directly related to the BP oil catastrophe is Section 390, which dramatically expanded the circumstances under which new drilling permits could be approved without further environmental reviews or assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act. Many appear to have been approved based almost completely on responses to yes or no questions on pro forma checklists.

"The Minerals Management Service approved BP’s blown out Mississippi Canyon 252 well using just such a 'categorical exclusion.' BP was even lobbying to further expand use of such exemptions just 11 days before Deepwater Horizon exploded."

There were environmental and safety regulations, then there were the exceptions, and then there were the pro-forma checklists which showed that the applicant was in compliance. Which are policy and which are execution?

Josh said...

Jay, this smacks of partisanship as if the current administration has been characterized by a marked improvement in transparency. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is structural, not individual.

Jay Livingston said...

Josh, My impression is that the Bush-Cheney administration was unusually kind to energy producers, basically letting their lobbyists write the rules an installing their people in Interior and MMS. They emphasized production and downplayed conservation, safety, and environmental protection. The Obama administration inherited all that, and, as you say, they didn’t do much to change it. (In fairness, they did have some other things that, at the time, seemed more demanding of their attention.) So there was some inertia, and I guess that’s structural. And efforts to make changes would have met resistance.

Are individuals relatively irrelevant? I don’t know, but I do wonder what our energy policy – and maybe even the Gulf of Mexico – would look like if the Court had decided Bush v. Gore differently.

Anonymous said...

Jay. Don't forget that Reagon stripped OSHA and no one quite ever put humpty dumpty back together again. The BP stuff reads like so many bad scripts of modern times - some greedy combination of organizational sociologists Perrow and D. Vaughan.