Rolling Stone: Dept. Of Interior Employees Say It's The Third Bush Term. Drill, Baby, Drill!

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Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson has written a stunner of an article called "The Spill, The Scandal and The President." It's damned heartbreaking to learn that yes, at least in Interior, this really is the third Bush term:

Even worse, the "moratorium" on drilling announced by the president does little to prevent future disasters. The ban halts exploratory drilling at only 33 deepwater operations, shutting down less than one percent of the total wells in the Gulf. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Cabinet-level official appointed by Obama to rein in the oil industry, boasts that "the moratorium is not a moratorium that will affect production" – which continues at 5,106 wells in the Gulf, including 591 in deep water.

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."

The administration's response to the looming threat? According to an e-mail to a congressional aide from a staff member at MMS, the agency has had "zero contact" with Atlantis about its safety risks since the Deepwater rig went down.

Excuse me, I think I have to go scream now...

[...] 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.

Salazar was far less aggressive, however, when it came to making good on his promise to fix MMS. Though he criticized the actions of "a few rotten apples" at the agency, he left long-serving lackeys of the oil industry in charge. "The people that are ethically challenged are the career managers, the people who come up through the ranks," says a marine biologist who left the agency over the way science was tampered with by top officials. "In order to get promoted at MMS, you better get invested in this pro-development oil culture." One of the Bush-era managers whom Salazar left in place was John Goll, the agency's director for Alaska. Shortly after the Interior secretary announced a reorganization of MMS in the wake of the Gulf disaster, Goll called a staff meeting and served cake decorated with the words "Drill, baby, drill."

Salazar also failed to remove Chris Oynes, a top MMS official who had been a central figure in a multibillion-dollar scandal that Interior's inspector general called "a jaw-dropping example of bureaucratic bungling." In the 1990s, industry lobbyists secured a sweetheart subsidy from Congress: Drillers would pay no royalties on oil extracted in deep water until prices rose above $28 a barrel. But this tripwire was conveniently omitted in Gulf leases overseen by Oynes – a mistake that will let the oil giants pocket as much as $53 billion. Instead of being fired for this f*ckup, however, Oynes was promoted by Bush to become associate director for offshore drilling – a position he kept under Salazar until the Gulf disaster hit.

"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?"

[...]"People are being really circumspect, not pointing the finger at Salazar and Obama," says Rep. Raul Grijalva, who oversees the Interior Department as chair of the House subcommittee on public lands. "But the troublesome point is, the administration knew that it had this rot in the middle of the process on offshore drilling – yet it empowered an already discredited, disgraced agency to essentially be in charge."

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