Jun 6, 2010

The oil spill

Today the NYT has a must-read article on the Gulf spill. It lays out, blow-by-blow, the numerous exceptions and foolish decisions that led to the spill:
Investigators have focused on the minute-to-minute decisions and breakdowns to understand what led to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 people and setting off the largest oil spill in United States history and an environmental disaster. But the lack of coordination was not limited to the day of the explosion.

New government and BP documents, interviews with experts and testimony by witnesses provide the clearest indication to date that a hodgepodge of oversight agencies granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely on the rig, particularly with a mix of different companies operating on the Deepwater whose interests were not always in sync.

And in the aftermath, arguments about who is in charge of the cleanup — often a signal that no one is in charge — have led to delays, distractions and disagreements over how to cap the well and defend the coastline. As a result, with oil continuing to gush a mile below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, the laws of physics are largely in control, creating the daunting challenge of trying to plug a hole at depths where equipment is straining under more than a ton of pressure per square inch.
The climax of the well explosion is blackly hilarious microcosm of the whole mess:
When the explosion occurred around 9:50 p.m. on April 20, there was pandemonium on the rig. Most workers headed for lifeboats. Others rescued shipmates trapped under equipment. On the bridge, Captain Kuchta gathered with at least eight other managers and crew members to decide on an emergency plan.

Steve Bertone, the chief engineer for Transocean, wrote in his witness statement that he ran up to the bridge where he heard Captain Kuchta screaming at a worker, Andrea Fleytas, because she had pressed the distress button without authorization.

Mr. Bertone turned to another worker and asked him if he had called to shore for help but was told he did not have permission to do so. Another manager tried to give the go-ahead, the testimony said, but someone else said the order needed to come from the rig’s offshore installation manager.
Frank Rich adds some analysis as to the fault of Obama:
By now, he also should have learned that the best and the brightest can get it wrong — and do. His economic advisers predicted that without the stimulus the unemployment rate might reach 9 percent — a projection that was quickly exceeded even with the stimulus and that has haunted the administration ever since. Other White House geniuses persuaded the president to make his fateful claim in early April that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills” — a particularly specious (indeed false) plank in the argument for his spectacularly ill-timed expansion of offshore oil drilling. The Times reported last week that at the administration meetings leading to this new drilling policy the subject of the vast dysfunction at the Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with regulating the drilling, never even came up.
It's fair to say that most of the blame for the problems that led to this mess can be laid at the feet of Bush and his anti-regulatory zeal. The relevant agencies were cored out with a melon baller and stocked with industry lobbyists. Yet Obama, had he a bit more awareness of the scope of the Bush disaster, should seen this coming and done more--or at least appointed a more energetic manager than Ken Salazar (sadly from Colorado). To me what Obama lacks most is cynicism. Maybe he doesn't need as much as George Carlin, but a healthy distrust of human nature and some more immersion in the twisted spectacle of Bush failures and corruption would help him anticipate disasters like this. International corporations must be kept on an extremely short leash.

Probably the most infuriating thing about the whole mess is the missed opportunity. Global environmental catastrophe is looming. The Copenhagen negotiations collapsed in disgrace. The US is saddled with a terribly outdated energy infrastructure, requiring tremendous effort to replace. Yet Obama and congressional Democrats can't seem to harness even this spill as a motivation for energy revolution. It's pathetic.

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