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BP: The Buck Stops on Obama’s Desk

One of the hopeful promises Barack Obama made to the country in 2008 was that if elected, his administration would reinstitute science-based decision making. We had all heard the stories of how, under George W. Bush, science was regularly compromised in the interests of big business. The BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and events in the aftermath of this epic catastrophe, demonstrates how little has changed.

The story behind BP's ruptured well goes back at least to the fall of 2008 when stories began to break regarding ethical lapses by federal workers in Lakewood, Colorado. These workers were employed in what is called the Royalty in Kind division of the Minerals Management Service (MMS). It is the job of MMS to oversee all offshore oil and gas production efforts as well as the royalties paid to the government by a producer of minerals, oil or natural gas on leased sites. The MMS is one of the federal government's largest sources of non-tax revenues.

In 2008, a two year, $5.3 million dollar investigation of Lakewood concluded that there existed a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" in the royalty division. The Inspector General for the Interior Department found "a pervasive culture of exclusivity, exempt from the rules that govern all other employees of the federal government."

Of course, Democrats were quick to jump on this report as proof of the illicit relationship between the Bush administration and oil companies. "Little did we know," cooed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "how cozy the relationship between Big Oil and the administration's regulators have been."

But neither was the relationship between Big Oil and the Democrats particularly cold. In October of 2008, just about the time the Lakewood story was breaking, congressional Democrats allowed an 18-year long moratorium on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to lapse. It seems that the oil companies had threatened to put megabucks into supporting Republicans in the upcoming election and with gas prices spiking to $4/gallon, the Democrats caved.

In his State of the Union address this past January, President Obama made clear that drilling in the OCS would be a central part of his "energy program". And then, ironically just a few weeks before a BP rig turned into a fountain of flame and sank, Obama announced that new offshore oil leasing on the eastern seaboard would commence.

Obama has disappointed in many ways, but none more than in the way he has handled this issue. Because once the oil began to spill, so did the beans on how his administration's MMS is really no better than the one presided over by his predecessor. Maybe there's less cocaine and booze, fewer golf and ski junkets, but the overall functioning of this critical agency has not improved. According to Kierán Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), "MMS has given up any pretense of regulating the offshore oil industry. The agency seems to think its mission is to help the oil industry evade environmental laws."

In a recent article published on May 7 by the New York Times, Ian Urbina discusses the continued abandonment of science-based decision making at MMS. "Managers at the agency have routinely overruled staff scientists whose findings highlight the environmental risks of drilling, according to a half-dozen current and former agency scientists." One scientist, who has worked for the minerals agency for more than a decade, put it this way: "You simply are not allowed to conclude that the drilling will have an impact."

Certainly no change we can believe in here. And it gets worse.

On the same day the Times story broke, we learned in a press release from CBD, that the MMS had approved 27 gulf drilling operations after the BP disaster, exempting these operations from environmental review! The MMS has done so using a loophole in the National Environmental Act meant only to apply to projects with no, or minimal, negative effects, "such as outhouses and hiking trails."

Another highly disturbing aspect of this monumental clusterf**k is the way it illustrates (do we really need more evidence?) that corporations rule the United States of America. Marisa Taylor and Renee Schoof illustrate the point in a piece published on Common Dreams this week in which they outline government complicity in the obfuscations around the exploded rig and subsequent gushing of oil into the sea. According to Taylor and Schoof, BP "hasn't publicly divulged the results of tests on the extent of workers' exposure to evaporating oil or from the burning of crude over the gulf."

Realistic estimates of the extent of the spill, and even decipherable video footage, have also gone missing. At first, media reported that "the spill is only 1/50th the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. Assuming a sustained rate of leakage, it will take another 250 days for the spill to reach the size of the 1989 Alaskan catastrophe."6 Now we're hearing that the gouge in the ocean floor may be spewing the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez every few days and that the flow may continue well into the summer!

Meanwhile, inexplicably, BP remains in charge of the situation. They decide who are the "legitimate interested parties" to information. (Obviously, this does not include the general public!) For example, air monitoring along the shore and over the sea is being done by an organization called The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, hired and paid by BP. BP has also determined what kinds of chemical dispersants to use. They chose the eerily labeled Corexit, and sprayed at least 600,000 gallons of it on the sea. If by "corrects it" we mean hides it, as in "out of sight, out of mind", they chose wisely. However, it turns out that Corexit is also, according to the EPA, "carcinogenic, mutagenic, and highly toxic." EPA has ordered BP to change to a less toxic dispersant but significant damage has already been done.

The cherry on this most unsavory sundae came with the news that no less mainstream a news organization than CBS was recently ordered to leave public beaches by the Coast Guard. When the reporters protested, they were told that "This is BP's rules, not ours." As was pointed out on the Daily Kos, "It seems as if BP, a foreign corporation, has taken over a branch of the U.S. government and is ordering US citizens off of public beaches, with the Coast Guard acting as its enforcer."

We had grave concerns about Barack Obama from the time he became a serious candidate for the presidency. Obama ran for and won the world's most powerful office with a very spotty resume. He got his initial big boost from outlaw enterprises like Goldman-Sachs (which gave nearly $1 million to candidate Obama) but the oil companies weren't far behind. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, BP and its employees have given more money to Obama than to any other candidate over the past 20 years!

This is, of course, legalized bribery. And with the recent Supreme Court travesty of Citizens United, it will only get worse. This is not the country we signed on for; instead, it is a country, in Ralph Nader's words, "of, by and for the corporations". Contrary to his rhetorical flourishes, President Obama is just another sycophant to corporate America. We are risking the future of the planet and our species by allowing this deadly ruse to go on.

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