Rolling Stone: Deepwater blew and Obama knew

So far, Barack Obama’s new Captain Kickass persona seems to be as big a flop as the movie itself.  No one is buying Obama’s outrage, especially not the Left, where anger over his mismanagement and inaction has finally landed in the featured pages of the Rolling Stone, one of the magazines shouting hosannas to Obama in 2007-8.  Tim Dickinson takes his shots at the Bush administration, but mainly hammers Obama and his laughable attempts to feign shock over the Deepwater Horizon blowout and Gulf disaster:

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.

Even after the president’s press conference,Rolling Stone has learned, the administration knew the spill could be far worse than its “best estimate” acknowledged. That same day, the president’s Flow Rate Technical Group – a team of scientists charged with establishing the gusher’s output – announced a new estimate of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels, based on calculations from video of the plume. In fact, according to interviews with team members and scientists familiar with its work, that figure represents the plume group’s minimum estimate. The upper range was not included in their report because scientists analyzing the flow were unable to reach a consensus on how bad it could be. “The upper bound from the plume group, if it had come out, is very high,” says Timothy Crone, a marine geophysicist at Columbia University who has consulted with the government’s team. “That’s why they had resistance internally. We’re talking 100,000 barrels a day.”

But what happened to Hope and Change?  The MMS had been a known center of corruption for some time, which led Republican firebrand Rep. Darrell Issa to declare that “Bush owns eight years of the mess” in a statement to Rolling Stone, but that “after more than a year on the job, Salazar owns it too.”  Obama appointed Ken Salazar to run Interior at the beginning of his presidency, and Dickinson reports that he initially made some moves to clean up MMS.  However, those got quickly forgotten — even though Obama had made MMS an issue during his presidential campaign.  If Obama has failed to make a go of “Captain Kickass,” Salazar might be believable as Commander Passbuck:

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 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.”

And after the crisis began?

The president himself was occupied elsewhere. After returning from his vacation, Obama spent Monday, April 26th palling around with Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, congratulating them on their World Series victory. He later took time to chat with the president of Honduras. When he put in a call to Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, it was to talk about tornadoes that had caused damage in that state, with only a brief mention of the oil spill. On Tuesday the 27th, Obama visited a wind-turbine plant in Iowa. Wednesday the 28th, he toured a biofuels refinery in Missouri and talked up financial reform in Quincy, Illinois. He didn’t mention the oil spill or the Gulf.

That evening, administration officials received news that – to judge from their subsequent response – scared the shit out of them. “The following is not public,” a confidential NOAA advisory stressed. “Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked, resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought. There is no official change in the volume released but the [Coast Guard] is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day. Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear.” …

After he was briefed that evening, Obama told his deputies to contact the Pentagon. The following day, Napolitano declared the BP disaster, which was now approaching the size of Puerto Rico, an “Oil Spill of National Significance” – the designation required to draw on regional resources and to appoint an incident commander to coordinate a federal response. It had taken a full week after Deepwater Horizon exploded for the government to become fully engaged – a critical lapse that allowed the crisis to spiral out of control.

There is more — much more — in Dickinson’s report, which should be read in full.  It indicts both administrations on negligence and incompetence, as well as BP and the regulators that allowed it to operate without hardly any safeguards at all.   While the details may be surfacing in the Rolling Stone report for the first time for some people, the narrative itself is in line with the assumptions from the last couple of weeks about what led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the spill, and the bungled response.

This is more interesting for Rolling Stone’s comfort in damning the Obama administration and flat-out rejecting the Captain Kickass/Commander Passbuck spin coming from the White House.  Not only did they know all about the problems at MMS, none of them had much interest in fixing it.  When disaster struck, they spent more time trying to silence scientists at NOAA about the extent of the spill than they did in getting BP to act.  It’s as if they won the election and decided mainly to rest on their laurel.  It speaks to a profound disinterest in doing the jobs for which they got elected, and a complete lack of leadership from the beginning of the spill and lasting until the moment Rolling Stone published their analysis today.

David Strom 12:41 PM on September 26, 2022