Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
Those who have labeled the BP oil spill as "Obama's Katrina" are wildly off base. The two disasters, and the government's ability to react to them, are radically different. But the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico does reflect perhaps the most glaring weakness of the Obama presidency--and it's one we've been writing about for months.
We are talking about the White House's failure to launch an aggressive effort to clean up the mess it inherited in government agencies from George W. Bush. We have focused primarily on the U.S. Department of Justice. But recent pieces by Joe Klein in Time magazine and Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone show the Obama administration deserves some blame for allowing governmental dysfunction to help lead to environmental disaster in the Gulf Coast.
We have pointed to the Middle District of Alabama, where the wretched Bush appointee Leura Canary remains in the U.S. attorney post, as an example of Obama's slow actions in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Klein says Obama has been similarly slowto clean up the mess in the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is charged with overseeing offshore drilling. Writes Klein:
Obama is not blameless. A month before the spill, he insinuated himself into the "Drill, baby, drill" camp by agreeing to a deal, first proposed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, in which offshore drilling and nuclear power would be added to legislation taxing carbon fuels and promoting alternative energy. There was a certain logic to that. All three forms of energy—fossil, nuclear and alternative—are necessary as the transition to a greener, more efficient economy takes place. But drilling can be defended only if it is closely managed and regulated, and Obama's Interior Department allowed the MMS to marinate in its own stink for 15 months without overhauling it before disaster struck. It was another bit of evidence that Obama, the candidate of change, had overlooked the most important, if least dramatic, change needed after the Bush Administration's wall-to-wall neglect—a renewed commitment to actual governance after an era when the slick and grease of marketing slogans and political posturing had polluted our national life.
Let's ponder this: Obama's Interior Department "allowed the MMS to marinate in its own stink for 15 months without overhauling it before disaster struck." Those are powerful words. And Klein is not the only one firing such charges at the White House.
The headline on Dickinson's story, just out in Rolling Stone, speaks volumes:
The inside story of how Obama failed to crack down on the corruption of the Bush years--and let the world's most dangerous oil company get away with murder
The headline is rough, and the story is rougher. Dickinson compares the Obama response to Bush's failure to heed warnings about the 9/11 attacks:
Like the attacks by Al Qaeda, the disaster in the Gulf was preceded by ample warnings--yet the administration had ignored them. Instead of cracking down on MMS, as he had vowed to do even before taking office, Obama left in place many of the top officials who oversaw the agency's culture of corruption. He permitted it to rubber-stamp dangerous drilling operations by BP--a firm with the worst safety record of any oil company--with virtually no environmental safeguards, using industry-friendly regulations drafted during the Bush years. He calibrated his response to the Gulf spill based on flawed and misleading estimates from BP--and then deployed his top aides to lowball the flow rate at a laughable 5,000 barrels a day, long after the best science made clear this catastrophe would eclipse the Exxon Valdez.
Dickinson writes that an even bigger problem could be looming on the horizon. And Ken Salazar, Obama's Interior secretary, doesn't seem to get it:
Most troubling of all, the government has allowed BP to continue deep-sea production at its Atlantis rig--one of the world's largest oil platforms. Capable of drawing 200,000 barrels a day from the seafloor, Atlantis is located only 150 miles off the coast of Louisiana, in waters nearly 2,000 feet deeper than BP drilled at Deepwater Horizon. According to congressional documents, the platform lacks required engineering certification for as much as 90 percent of its subsea components--a flaw that internal BP documents reveal could lead to "catastrophic" errors. In a May 19th letter to Salazar, 26 congressmen called for the rig to be shut down immediately. "We are very concerned," they wrote, "that the tragedy at Deepwater Horizon could foreshadow an accident at BP Atlantis."
Dickinson does not let Salazar, or Obama, off the hook. After all, BP submitted its application for the Deepwater Horizon under Obama, not Bush. In fact, the application came only two months after Obama had taken office. And approval came on April 6, 2009, less than a month after the application had been submitted:
It's tempting to believe that the Gulf spill, like so many disasters inherited by Obama, was the fault of the Texas oilman who preceded him in office. But, though George W. Bush paved the way for the catastrophe, it was Obama who gave BP the green light to drill. "Bush owns eight years of the mess," says Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California. "But after more than a year on the job, Salazar owns it too."
While Bush created a corrupt, criminal mess at MMS, the Obama administration deserves to take its lumps in the blame game, Dickinson writes:
Salazar himself has worked hard to foster the impression that the "prior administration" is to blame for the catastrophe. In reality, though, the Obama administration was fully aware from the outset of the need to correct the lapses at MMS that led directly to the disaster in the Gulf. In fact, Obama specifically nominated Salazar--his "great" and "dear" friend--to force the department to "clean up its act." For too long, Obama declared, Interior has been "seen as an appendage of commercial interests" rather than serving the people. "That's going to change under Ken Salazar."
Salazar claimed that his crackdown at MMS went beyond "codes of ethics." Except that it didn't. Writes Dickinson:
Salazar did little to tamp down on the lawlessness at MMS, beyond referring a few employees for criminal prosecution and ending a Bush-era program that allowed oil companies to make their "royalty" payments--the amount they owe taxpayers for extracting a scarce public resource--not in cash but in crude. And instead of putting the brakes on new offshore drilling, Salazar immediately throttled it up to record levels. Even though he had scrapped the Bush plan, Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease in the Gulf in his first year alone --an all-time high. The aggressive leasing came as no surprise, given Salazar's track record. "This guy has a long, long history of promoting offshore oil drilling--that's his thing," says Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "He's got a highly specific soft spot for offshore oil drilling." As a senator, Salazar not only steered passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened 8 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, he even criticized President Bush for not forcing oil companies to develop existing leases faster.
Attorney General Eric Holder seems to be taking a similar approach in the Justice Department. Just yesterday, we reported that Holder's DOJ is stonewalling on turning over documents related to the political prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. This is almost 17months after Obama took office.
It's possible that Obama inherited a worse mess from his predecessor than any president in American history. Because of that, many of his supporters--including me--tend to cut him some slack. But Klein and Dickinson indicate it is well past time to get a raggedy ship into shape.
Will the Gulf disaster prompt Obama to move aggressively to repair dysfunctional government agencies? Perhaps. But for now, the outlook does not look promising. Writes Dickinson:
"Employees describe being in Interior-–not just MMS, but the other agencies–-as the third Bush term," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. "They're working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?"