Is it just me, or is the BP oil spill saga sounding more and more like an over-the-top movie treatment?
I mean, first you’ve got sex, drugs and golf vacations provided by oil executives for regulators in the Denver office of the agency that could make or break those companies. Then, you’ve got hunting trips, college bowl-game tickets and even jobs being given by oil companies to regulators in a Louisiana office of the same agency.
As if that wasn’t enough, all this happened while the White House was occupied by two oil men — George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — whose political philosophy was to weaken regulations for all kinds of industries and to ensure that their industry in particular dominated the energy sector.
Predictably enough, more and more risks were taken, both with lives and with the environment. Oil companies started drilling in deeper and deeper water, and that gift-gobbling, corruption-ridden agency — the Minerals Management Service (MMS) — allowed the companies to set up rigs further out at sea despite the fact that they hadn’t met the permitting requirements.
If you’re familiar with movie plots, by this point you know that something bad is going to happen. The tension builds ... and then ... an explosion.
Eleven men die while doing the hard, risky work that the corrupt elite permitted when they shouldn’t have. That explosion is followed by another, slower disaster — a gradually unfolding environmental calamity.
As the oil at Deepwater Horizon bubbles from the Earth, the culprit company claims the disaster is less severe than it appears to be. Every thriller needs a sociopathic villain, and BP CEO Tony Hayward seems to be going out of his way to fit the part. He’s even pooh-poohed the spill on British television, insisting for example that it’s “tiny in relation to the total water volume.” Can we get that guy who played the SS colonel in "Inglourious Basterds" to play Hayward in the cinematic version?
BP itself seems like another movie cliché: The publicly beneficent corporation that’s actually a front for an evil racket. This is the same BP that a few years back declared itself “Beyond Petroleum,” changed its logo to a green sun, and put solar panels on hundreds of its stations. Hayward abandoned what little was real behind that feel-good marketing. Last year, he closed the alternative fuels division. But he didn’t get rid of the greenwashing.
The plot. The characters. The setting. It seems a bit too neat, doesn’t it? The villains are so obviously cunningly corrupt people doing bad things that you end up knowing they’ll eventually get caught. But only after doing a lot of harm. You saw "Double Indemnity", didn’t you?
And the heroes ... wait a second. There aren’t any heroes.
There are victims, certainly: The 11 men who died. The seafood industry. The people of south Louisiana, who already have suffered enough in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita. Beach resorts in Alabama. Tourism on Florida’s Gulf coast. Dolphins, and seagulls, and flounder, and turtles, and snapper, and oysters, and shrimp, and cormorants, and osprey. And gumbo.
But these are the victims of this disaster, not the Erin Brockovichs.
Everybody else in this epic comes off looking pretty bad, which is so not Hollywood.
The governor of Louisiana? Bobby Jindal is part of the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd. Now he’s acting all outraged that’s this is happening to his wetlands. Outraged, I tell you! The hypocrisy makes me want to dunk his head in the Gulf.
The whistleblower who ratted out those corrupt officials? He turns out to be the head of a separate MMS field office in New Orleans. His office was the one that actually permitted the Deepwater Horizon — despite the fact that BP hadn’t performed all the necessary environmental studies. He resigned in disgrace this month rather than take the beating he deserved over this mess.
What about the rig’s owner, which contracted with BP to run the well? Witnesses say Transocean’s representatives pleaded with BP officials not to employ the shortcuts they ended up using in an attempt to shut down the well. But Transocean doesn’t look so good when it moves to limit its liability connected to the spill at $27 million or when its employees say the company pressured them to sign statements shortly after the accident that they didn’t see anything.
The heroes could have been President Obama and his administration. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made a good start at playing that role, when he rode into D.C. a little over a year ago on the white horse of reform. He pushed a stronger ethics policy onto the MMS and announced plans to reorganize the agency.
But then on March 31, just three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the President himself announced that the administration was going to allow limited offshore drilling in the Gulf, along the Atlantic Seaboard and in the Atlantic Ocean.
That drilling is likely to be delayed now for many years. Still, Obama’s “compromise” with the oil industry may go down as his most feckless decision in 16 months in the White House.
It’s nonsensical, in the first place, to claim that more drilling will free us of our foreign oil addiction; we’ll only be more addicted by the time we use up all that hard-to-get oil on the outer continental shelf, and then we’ll really be dependent on foreign oil.
It’s also gutless for a president to kowtow to a powerful industry. If you want to be a hero, you don’t compromise on something like that.
Once you lay down with the lobbyists, don’t be surprised if you come away looking a little dirty.