Thursday, March 7, 2013

Finding Fault with Us All: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Civil Trial

A bird covered in oil after the DWHOS on the Louisiana Coast

If you read this blog, you might know that I get a lot of my daily news from the New York Times. There's a personal reason for this- when I was a freshman at Florida State in my very first class ever (Intro to Cultural Anthropology) an old professor pronounced that any young adult that did not read at least one print news publication of a creditable variety (he gave us a list) would never be a good citizen. Worthless Slugs. The list was pretty even as far as political leanings- NYTimes, Wall Street Journal, Economist, Guardian, and several others. I chose the NYTimes because a. we got it free everyday on campus and b. they had a food, fashion, and arts section- my favorite things to waste time reading instead of reading the actual world and national news. Knowing what critics are saying about the newest Met Opera debut made me feel cosmopolitan, even if I had never been to New York before.

This week, I'm regretting my decisions. The New York Times is really letting me down and the Guardian is picking up the slack. On what you wonder? The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Civil Trial (DWHOSCT).

Last October, a judge in New Orleans made the choice to move the start of the civil trial to Feb. 25, 2013 because of fears that the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras would disrupt the proceedings. I thought this was a bit fishy: the trial is important but business can be conducted in cities that hold big events. Should we continuously push back much needed judicial cases because of the Super Bowl? And then I thought, how very American. And then I thought- what does this move suggest about how much attention the American public, and press, give the event? More, because they don't have those pesky football games to work around? Or less, because really after the Super Bowl we're all too exhausted until March Madness to do much of anything but finish leftover french onion dip and feel bad about the amount of football shaped cupcakes we consumed? Well, I don't know how many cupcakes the New York Times consumed during Super Bowl Sunday, but they must be pretty tired to have dropped the ball on reporting so much. In fact, it seems every major news outlet must still be in a food coma- where's the coverage?

The DWHOSCT is going on, and man is it a doozie. I'm not even sure I could do justice to the crazy shit storm of obvious corner cutting the American government and BP seemingly engaged in to practically assure the destruction of the Gulf Coast ecosystem and economy. They actually couldn't have done a better job of causing major destruction if they had actually set out to do so; it was that poorly/well planned. So let's take a look at how not just BP is responsible, shall we?

The MMS and the mysterious "walruses" in the Gulf of Mexico:

Ever head of the Mineral Management Services? Maybe not. It's okay- they don't exist anymore- they are now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Following the DWHOS it was found that MMS was actually not really a "management" service at all, but something along the lines of a terribly lazy, blind Cerberus easily bribed by sex, money, and the promise of high paying positions in oil companies. If it were a Sphinx, it would probably have just asked you to pull its finger. The MMS was created in 1982 and had two major jobs: collecting oil and gas drilling revenues for the government and overseeing and approving permits that generate that revenue. They were torn in half from the beginning- should they allow as many drilling permits as possible to enhance revenue, or should they deny obviously dangerous and foolhardy plans without thought to the impact on revenues?

In the end, it seems that the more the United States government and the American public imbued the price of gas with the signification of proper leadership (I'll come back to this later), the push came to allow more and more ill-formed plans to get through the gates. At the beginning of Obama's administration, in an effort to get gas prices down and to perhaps appease right-leaning politicians with some cowtowing that seemed less tree-hugger and more "Drill, baby, Drill", the President exempted BP from an important environmental impact analysis required by companies before MMS signed off on permits for drilling.

It is clear that not only was the environmental impact analysis not required, but knowledge of the surrounding environment wasn't apparently required at all. In BP's formal 583-page Gulf Spill Response Plan, they calculated that the largest spill that could occur would would last up to 30 days and had a 20 percent chance of reaching the shore. In addition, they listed the wildlife resources in the area as "walruses, sea otters, seals, and sea lions." There was no listed plan on how to respond to a deep sea blowout.  Just in case you haven't been to the Gulf (or you wrote this plan and are reading this) none of those organisms live in the Gulf Coast. BP had no idea what surrounded their drilling operation, they low balled the risk, and they didn't include any plan for a disastrous situation that was not unforeseen.

Most MMS employees were former oil rig workers or administrators. Old Buddies. Risks were not noted, the permit was given, and the damage was definitely done. To read a really amazing story written in 2010 at the Denver Post at the MMS scandal, click here. (unless you're an angry person already and then I wouldn't read that because you'll probably throw your computer at a kitten or something equally horrid)  Let's move on to BP's role in this mess.

British Petroleum:

11 men died aboard the drilling platform during the explosion. Randy Ezell, a survivor, testified at the Civil Trial on March  5, 2013.

1. BP, and the Former CEO Tony Hayward, have been accused of cutting corners on safety measures to ensure more profits for shareholders. According to employees and consultants say they continually told BP management, quite pointedly, that there were safety issues. Bob Bea, a consultant with BP (who has worked in some way on just about every major disaster in the last 30 years- Columbia shuttle explosion, Exxon Valdez, PetroBas P36) said he warned BP that safety measures were no joke. According to Bea, the cornerstone of safety in BPs industry is the operating management system (OMS). He reports that this system has greatly increased safety throughout BPs operations. But, the system was never put into place on the DWH oil rig. Bea suggests that this was to cut costs in that operation, but Tony Hayward denies this claim. Regardless of the he said/ he said, it remains clear that others had major concerns about safety on BP rigs. Kevin Lacey, who gave testimony after Tony Hayward, was a drilling official for BPs operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Lacey resigned several months before the Oil Spill, citing concerns about cost cutting and safety concerns. Lacey said he felt pressured to cut costs by cutting safety.

2. Another major point that has come up in the trial is the misinterpretation of a test performed an hour before the drill explosion. This is an especially tricky issue- of the 11 men who died on the drilling rig, 1 of the men is considered to the be the (mis)interpreter of this test. Jason Andersen, a "toolpusher" on the rig (a term on non landlocked rigs that means boss or management) Other reports have suggested that another leader on the rig, Donald Vidrine (a well site leader), contacted a BP engineer on shore an hour before the explosion to discuss the recent test and results (a call which is in question), which he also apparently "misinterpreted." The test in question showed abnormally high pressure readings in the well, which were apparently interpreted by Andersen as "bladder effect" an interpretation that officials say Vidrine and the other well site manager Robert Kaluza, should not have believed scientifically sound at the time. Both Vidrine and Kaluza have been indicted on manslaughter charges and await their own trial. According to officials, if Andersen's report had been questioned, or if the engineers who might have spoken to Vidrine from onshore had been properly concerned with safety, they would have taken the test as indication to shut the well down immediately- thereby diverting the whole disaster. Randy Ezell, the first man who survived the explosion to testify had few answers as to Andersen's motives- he may have just misinterpreted the results, simple as that. But lawyers are more concerned about the systematic interpretation of concerning results by BP officials, perhaps stemming for a corporate inclination to try to skirt disaster by barreling through the drilling process.

So far, we have lack of government oversight and some great corporate cost cutting. But what is the public's role in this farce? Let's bring in the clowns!


American's are super oil crazy. We love our huge gas guzzling cars and low gas prices. Who doesn't? During the last election cycle, people got it into their heads that a. the President can do a lot to reduce gas prices and that b. one of the things he could do is to increase drilling on American soil. Well, heads up people: there are multiple factors that determine the price of gas, many are out of control of our government, and one of the things that appears to influence gas prices the least is drilling in America. Truth: according to economists, US supply and increase in drilling doesn't really make a difference in the cost of oil because the cost is a global market thing and American produced oil is, pun intended, a drop in the bucket. Check it out. There's a destructive feedback mechanism operating in the American Psyche right now- Politicians mistakenly point to gas prices as a problem that can be helped by more drilling; the public picks this up- agrees drilling is awesome and that they would love to be able to afford to take their family of 6 to Yellowstone in a rented Hummer this summer-Politicians hear the outcry of the American public and are reassured that drilling will solve everything.  Of course, we should be able to trust politicians to know when things are false promises, but since most of their business involves making them (and some dude in Washington State apparently believes bicyclers are causing major CO2 problems and has ruined my belief in the intelligence or scientific knowledge of elected officials) and I'm convinced you don't even have to literate to be in Congress these days, let's make a point: the blame partially falls on the American public. We've bought gas and the Drill Drill Drill narrative hook, line, and sinker. And now we're paying dearly. Apparently all the walruses are extinct in the Gulf and only BP knew they were there! No, seriously. We're paying with a continued blindness towards the real issue: many new drilling schemes are unsafe (check out my earlier post on Artic Drilling) and they won't make a dent in the world oil economy. We need to be thinking about alternative energy or even just how to downgrade our expectations of gas prices.

What's at Stake:

Finally, I thought I'd write a little something on what's at stake in this whole circus. Obviously, the goal of the trial is to ascertain ultimate blame for the disaster. Far be it me to say who's at fault, as I've just laid out a particularly horrible network of fault for all of us (read this article for more spreading of blame). How many of the people or organizations that I've mentioned are indictable? But here's the thing: if the court finds BP merely "responsible" the pay out will be something like 3.5 billion in fines. If they are ruled "grossly negligent", that's 17.6 billion. This fine would be added to the 20 or 30$ billion they've already paid out for various economic impacts in the region. The Gulf States have just filed a lawsuit for damages up to 34$ billion. The total bill for BP could amount to almost 90$ Billion US. The Washington Post claims this is too much- something you can decide for yourself. But it doesn't fully account for the stake in this mess.

Just yesterday, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu called for the EPA to lift the restrictions it has placed on BP's drilling operations because of concerns regarding "lack of business integrity." The restrictions block BP from securing sensitive government contracts, even though it does nothing to previous contracts which BP an still operate according to those agreements. Landrieu suggests that these restrictions constitute a "double jeopardy" for BP- they've got to fight in court and for government contracts. You can make up your mind about this issue as well- although I will weigh in by saying that it appears Landrieu has learned absolutely nothing about the cost of making huge mistakes. I'm always a little confused how the South can be so hard on petty crime and so light on corporate greed and the fact that their people get the shaft constantly.

Finally, the biggest stake for me is that the public doesn't seem to be watching anymore. This trial offers an amazing resource for understanding the dangers of a topic that has divided American politics in recent decades.  In the last election, energy independence, gas prices, and off shore drilling were huge topics- yet it doesn't seem that people are interested in understand what went wrong- both with government oversight and corporate corner cutting. The American public is allowing this trial to proceed as if it was merely a formality- when in fact it should be one of the biggest fact finding missions for future decision making during energy debates. The fact that BP did not settle out of court should have the American public jumping for joy- for once we get answers to huge questions about corporate negligence. But instead, the story is being buried in the press and ignored by the very people who were injured the most by this disaster. Almost all of the up-to-date articles utilized in the post were written by The Guardian. While the Huffington Post has published several pieces, it appears other major media outlets have dropped the ball. Why?

I'm going to continue to follow the trial- and I'll keep this blog updated. But I beg you- check the facts for yourself. Do it for the endangered Gulf Coast sea otter.


  1. Sam, this is a great post. I am also dismayed by the lack of coverage, but I haven't had much time to dig in and get the details myself. So, I really appreciate what you've done. There's so much else I could flag that is awesome in this post, but the president and oil prices thing: Ugh! Drives me insane. "Destructive feedback mechanism"?: yes. Such a good point. I am so happy you are finding the time to do this blog.

  2. Thanks Megan! I too get really angry about the gas price debate- especially because it seems like one of the few things that politicians are recklessly listening to voters about- something that they should know better. The fact that Obama has given into so much pressure regarding drilling in order to secure votes (which apparently hasn't worked) on other issues means that this is an area where he feels there is pretty extensive bi-partisan support. I have found that the blog helps me to sort out what I think my dissertation has to say about modern marine science issues. While there are a lot of other marine science bloggers, there are few that actually link any issues back historically, even where there are clear historical ecological links. I'm sorry neither one of us could make it back to Friday Harbor this weekend.