June 7, 2010

Does everyone remember Dick Cheney's "National Energy Task Force"? The one where meetings were held in secret, and energy policy was set by the foxes in charge of the henhouse? Yeah, I figured you might.

The Center for American Progress has connected the dots between this task force, the Bush Administration energy policies, and Tom DeLay's leadership in the House of Representatives to paint a straight line right back to Cheney & Co. I don't agree with the conclusion of "Cheney's Katrina", so how about we call it "Cheney's Oil Apocalypse" instead?

Setting the stage - May, 2001

Cheney's secret task force releases a 170-page harbinger of death under the title "National Energy Policy" (PDF). One of the pillars of their report is California's supposed energy crisis, helped along by the likes of Enron.

In Chapter Five, several recommendations for increasing domestic energy supplies are made, including:

  • The NEPD Group recommends that the President direct the Secretary of the Interior to consider economic incentives for environmentally sound offshore oil and gas development where warranted by specific circumstances: explore opportunities for royalty reductions, consistent with ensuring a fair return to the public where warranted for enhanced oil and gas recovery; for reduction of risk associated with production in frontier areas or deep gas formations; and for development of small fields that would otherwise be uneconomic.
  • The NEPD Group recommends that the President direct the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior to re-examine the current federal legal and policy regime (statutes, regulations, and Executive Orders) to determine if changes are needed regarding energy-related activi- ties and the siting of energy facilities in the coastal zone and on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).
  • The NEPD Group recommends that the President direct the Secretary of the Interior continue OCS oil and gas leasing and approval of exploration and development plans on predictable schedules.

Act One - The Administration complies

First, the SAFE Act is introduced in the House in 2001. It provides for the following (quotes from CAP post):

  • Taxpayer funds to reimburse oil companies for the costs of complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (Sec. 6234)
  • A suspension of royalties on tens of millions of barrels of oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico—especially from deepwater wells like the one now spewing into the gulf (Sec. 6202)
  • Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling—with expedited leasing, limited judicial review, and lip service to environmental concerns (Div. F, Title V)

Check off one set of recommendations, though it took Cheney and Big Oil until 2003 to get it to a conference committee. Just after the midterms, Republicans guided the bill through the House, with DeLay twisting arms as needed. With Democrats safely in the minority, the conference committee was able to exempt all oil and gas construction activities from the Clean Water Act, force BLM lease approvals within 10 days, grant unprecedented authority to the Department of Interior to fast-track permits, and allocate $2 billion for oil companies to drill in ultra deepwater areas.

A filibuster in the Senate stopped it from becoming law. Then.

Act Two - If at first you don't succeed, try, try again...

In 2004 a second legislative assault on our coastlines was mounted. This time Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) worked with DeLay to get a bill through the House with the assistance of oilman-turned-lobbyist Andrew Lundquist and Abramoff crony Stephen Griles.

CAP reports:

One of the worst elements of what has come to be known as the “Dick Cheney energy bill” had a direct role in eliminating the kind of regulatory oversight that may have prevented the blowout of BP’s Mississippi Canyon 252 well on April 20 of this year. Section 390 of the legislation dramatically expanded the circumstance under which drilling operations could forego environmental reviews and be approved almost immediately under so-called “categorical exclusions” from the National Environmental Policy Act.

There you go. Fast-track approvals by waiving environmental reviews and granting "categorical exclusions". In other words, tell the oil companies like BP that it's totally okay to ride their iron horses out to the wild coastal frontier without regard for safety or environmental damage.

Worth noting: BP liked those categorical exclusions so much they were lobbying as late as April of this year for more of them.

Other gifts to the oil industry included in the Cheney Energy Bill:

  • Permanent permit exemptions granted to all oil and gas construction activities for roads, drill pads, pipeline corridors, refineries and compressor stations required under the Clean Water Act.
  • Exempted oil companies from paying royalties on oil produced from deepwater wells.
  • Created a special exception to the Safe Drinking Water Act for the "hydraulic fracturing process". As CAP notes, this process was invented by Halliburton.
  • Mandated a federally-funded study to identify ways that legislation, regulations and local zoning laws impeded development of existing leases and unexplored oil reserves.
  • Limited states' voice with regard to projects affecting their coastlines. This also included limiting court action with respect to offshore oil development.
  • Reinstated lapsed leases due to nonpayment of royalties and rents.
  • Transferred mineral rights of national seashores to private ownership or Texas state ownership in order to allow oil companies to drill under them.

Act Three - It is finished

On August 8, 2005, George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 into law.

On October 22, 2007 Randall B. Luthi, Wyoming attorney, Cheney cohort and new director of MMS signed a "Finding of No New Significant Impact" (PDF) with regard to Lease Sale 206, also known as the Deepwater Horizon. This finding was the last barrier for BP to cross before plunging equipment 5000 feet under the ocean's surface, using Halliburton fracture techniques to open the well, and beginning the flow of oil which ends as an environmental and economic disaster to Gulf inhabitants. No significant impact, indeed.

Stay tuned for scenes from next year

It's unclear how the Cheney Energy Act will play out in the legal morass yet to come. What we should expect are many challenges by BP lawyers to any effort to claim damages under the Clean Water Act (given the exemptions) as well as challenges for liability beyond cleaning up the spill.

But whatever happens, dear viewers, know this: The responsible parties are George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Joe Barton, and Tom DeLay.

Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Get the word out. Put the spotlight on the real villains.

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