Levees Not War
Rebuilding New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast.

“Oil-Spotted Dick”: Cheney’s Oily Fingerprints in the BP Disaster

05/5/10

It’s Not “Obama’s Katrina”—But It’s Cheney’s Second

[ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

—Vice President Dick Cheney, quoted in New York Times, May 1, 2001

The good people of Great Britain have a beloved and time-honored delicacy, a steamed suet pudding known as spotted dick. Well, we Americans too have a celebrated concoction that has served as vice president and secretary of defense as well as CEO of Halliburton. And what a rare and piquant morsel is our Dick.

Conservative media outlets and their followers at CNN have been quick to ask in their usual accusatory way if this disaster is “Obama’s Katrina” (by all means, lose no opportunity to attack!). It is probably true that the administration should have been more proactively skeptical of BP’s assertions that the situation was under control. (TPM’s timeline here.) But the responsibility for the leak’s happening at all lies closer to the George W. Bush administration—and to its all-powerful vice president. Halliburton was cementing the base of the well at the time of the explosion, and for its involvement in the accident the Houston-based oil services giant is named in a lawsuit filed by the widow of one of the 11 missing offshore workers. The Wall Street Journal reported (4/30):

The scrutiny on cementing will focus attention on Halliburton Co., the oilfield-services firm that was handling the cementing process on the rig. . . . Halliburton also was the cementer on a well that suffered a big blowout last August in the Timor Sea, off Australia. The rig there caught fire and a well leaked tens of thousands of barrels of oil over 10 weeks before it was shut down.

But Cheney is implicated also in the absence of a device that could have stopped the leak. The Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, the New Republic, and Michael Tomasky at The Guardian have been following the dripping trail of oil that leads to Dick Cheney’s (formerly undisclosed) location.

Cheney’s 2001 Energy Task Force and the Missing Shut-off Switch

Now, the still uncontrollable BP oil disaster is infuriating and heart-sickening no matter how you look at it—especially if you’re a Louisiana fisherman, shrimper, or oysterman, or the widow of one of the 11 missing workers presumed dead—but what makes the catastrophe even more revolting is the news now leaking from no less a source than the Wall Street Journal that the spill could have been prevented if BP had used a remote-controlled shut-off device known as an acoustic switch that has been available for some 20 years or more. The acoustic switch is required by Norway and Brazil (Norway has had them on almost every offshore rig since 1993, and Royal Dutch Shell and France’s Total SA often use them voluntarily), but at Cheney’s secretive energy task force convened in early 2001 it was decided that requiring this $500,000 device for all offshore wells was too onerous for the oil companies. The Journal reports:

The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn’t needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.

The National Energy Policy Development Group [NEPDG] was a task force established by President George W. Bush in March 2001, chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney and staffed by high officials from the departments of Energy, Commerce, and State. The NEP group met with representatives of major oil and energy firms; among those advising the panel were 18 of the top 25 contributors to the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, including Kenneth “Kenny Boy” Lay of Enron. The Washington Post reported on Nov. 16, 2005, that Cheney met personally with the CEO of BP:

[A White House document from 2001] shows that officials from Exxon Mobil Corp., Conoco (before its merger with Phillips), Shell Oil Co. and BP America Inc. met in the White House complex with the Cheney aides who were developing a national energy policy. . . . In addition, Cheney had a separate meeting with John Browne, BP’s chief executive, according to a person familiar with the task force’s work. . . . [emphasis added]

Records of the task force’s meetings were never disclosed despite an unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act suit filed by Sierra Club and Judicial Watch. The NEP’s report was delivered to President Bush on May 16, 2001.) It is not clear what was discussed in this meeting or any other with the oil executives, but we can be sure that requests to be spared from “burdensome” production costs and regulations would have received a sympathetic hearing.

The New Republic ’s William Galston in a powerful piece titled “Forget Offshore Drilling Until We Get Some Answers” delves into the mismanagement of the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department unit responsible for offshore drilling, under Bush-Cheney. Galston notes that “after a spill in 2000, the [Clinton] MMS issued a safety notice saying that such a back-up device [the acoustic switch] is ‘an essential component of a deepwater drilling system.’ . . . By 2003, government regulators decided that the matter needed more study after commissioning a report that offered another, more honest reason: ‘acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly.’” After summarizing the gross and remorseless corruption of that department in the Bush years, Galston asks:

[W]hat is responsible for MMS’s change of heart between 2000 and 2003 on the crucial issue of requiring a remote control switch for offshore rigs? What we do know is that unfettered oil drilling was to Dick Cheney’s domestic concerns what the invasion of Iraq was to his foreign policy—a core objective, implacably pursued regardless of the risks. Is there a connection between his infamous secret energy task force and the corrupt mindset that came to dominate a key program within MMS? Would $500,000 per rig have been regarded as an unacceptably expensive insurance policy if a drill-baby-drill administration hadn’t placed its thumb so heavily on the scale?

For more about the connection between Cheney’s energy agenda and his foreign policy, see Michael T. Klare’s Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum (2004; esp. ch. 3) for the links between Cheney’s NEP, neocon-protege Paul Wolfowitz’s Defense Planning Guidance (1992), written for Cheney when he was SecDef under Bush I, and Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century (2000), written by Wolfowitz for the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).

Environmental attorney Mike Papantonio, whose firm has filed class-action lawsuits on behalf of coastal fishermen and shrimpers, appeared on MSNBC’s Ed Show on Friday, April 30. He told Ed Schultz:

. . . here’s what people don’t know. BP didn’t want to spend the money for a system. It’s a fail-safe system, absolutely fail-safe. It’s a device system that’s used all over the world except in the United States, because we give them a free pass in the United States. . . . during the Bush deregulation years, you had the Minerals Management Service that told companies like BP that . . . we have a new policy. It’s the closed-door Dick Cheney policy. That Dick Cheney program allowed the industry to bypass safe systems like the acoustics switch, and there was no need to spend $500,000 with a company that was making $40 billion. It was a complete bypass of safety. It’s the most unreported part of this story out there, Ed. I don’t know why the media is not talking about this. . . . Dick Cheney changed political policy with the energy industry. We all remember when he met behind closed doors with the industry. This is one of the things that came out of there.


The $500,000 remote-controlled acoustic switches were regarded as too costly, so energy giants such as BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell, which have posted record profits over the past decade—some $656 billion during the Bush years—while other industries are shriveling and dying, are excused not only from paying much (if any) corporate income tax to the U.S. Treasury, but also from equipping their wells and rigs with available devices that would stop oil leaks of the kind that are presently spilling 210,000 gallons per day into the Gulf of Mexico and threatening flora and fauna + the livelihoods of tens of thousands along the Gulf Coast.

(Did we mention that after Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, Cheney stayed on vacation until Sept. 1, and did not tour the Gulf Coast until Sept. 8? A passerby in Gulfport, Mississippi, yelled out, “Go fuck yourself.”)

How Long a Catastrophe? And What, Really, Is the Price of a Tank of Gas?

Rachel Maddow on May 4 interviewed in his laboratory LSU’s Ed Overton, emeritus professor of environmental sciences, who has been analyzing the oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon well. Dr. Overton guessed that it may be six to nine months before the well is capped. Hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through November. Of course, the oil companies insist that nothing will go wrong—the wells won’t blow—so it’s not necessary to worry about how hurricanes in the warming Gulf waters may complicate efforts to cap a well that won’t leak. The $500,000 that BP saved on the acoustic switch has now turned to the $560 million loss of the collapsed rig (not to mention the workers’ lives) plus $6 million a day that BP is now spending to combat the spill. Other costs are incalculable.

So, let’s get this straight: The oil industry sells its products to the American public at escalating prices, sometimes independent of actual supply levels; enjoys minimal federal oversight of its operations; spends hundreds of millions per year in lobbying members of Congress and state legislatures for tax and regulatory “relief” and against public funding for alternative transportation as a competitor; and yet the industry pays little or no corporate income taxes to the U.S. Treasury. Therefore whenever there is an environmental disaster, any federal response is paid for by revenues other than oil companies’ taxes. And, after the environmental degradation, including some 10,000 miles of pipelines through the fragile Louisiana wetlands that have resulted in a loss of 1,900 square miles since the 1930s, the “storm surge buffer” that used to protect Louisiana’s settled areas from hurricane-driven flooding—after all this, perhaps the most damnable part of the oil industry’s malign influence is that our soldiers fight wars to secure access to foreign oil (see our essay “Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis” and Klare’s Blood and Oil). Would the U.S. Defense Department’s foreign real estate holdings (including hundreds of overseas military bases) be even remotely as extensive as they are if we were not “on the march” for access to cheap foreign oil?

One last thing: Did we mention that during the Vietnam War, Dick Cheney got five deferments from military service? Rare and piquant—and slippery, too.

*

Top Cheney photo: Associated Press photo by Eric Gay, Aug. 29, 2002 [“third pre-anniversary” of Hurricane Katrina, by the way].

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