Thursday, June 24, 2010

The next BP disaster?

One pretty much knows what to expect from the oil industry. Regardless of the disastrous situation in the Gulf of Mexico, it will ignore the obvious lessons stemming from that ongoing catastrophe and continue to push for drilling and more drilling. Perhaps one also pretty much knows what to expect from government, namely, that it will continue to hand the oil industry what it wants and look the other way when it matters, failing to provide the necessary regulatory oversight, but one expects, or should expect, better. Government, after all, exists not to, or should not exist to, help private industry maximize its profits but to advance the broader public interest. Such optimism is clearly unwarranted. The Times reports:

The future of BP's offshore oil operations in the Gulf of Mexico has been thrown into doubt by the recent drilling disaster and court wrangling over a moratorium.

But about three miles off the coast of Alaska, BP is moving ahead with a controversial and potentially record-setting project to drill two miles under the sea and then six to eight miles horizontally to reach what is believed to be a 100-million-barrel reservoir of oil under federal waters.

All other new projects in the Arctic have been halted by the Obama administration's moratorium on offshore drilling, including more traditional projects like Shell Oil's plans to drill three wells in the Chukchi Sea and two in the Beaufort.

But BP's project, called Liberty, has been exempted as regulators have granted it status as an "onshore" project even though it is about three miles off the coast in the Beaufort Sea. The reason: it sits on an artificial island — a 31-acre pile of gravel in about 22 feet of water — built by BP.

The project has already received its state and federal environmental permits, but BP has yet to file its final application to federal regulators to begin drilling, which it expects to start in the fall.

As bad as that is, it gets worse:

Rather than conducting their own independent analysis, federal regulators, in a break from usual practice, allowed BP in 2007 to write its own environmental review for the project as well as its own consultation documents relating to the Endangered Species Act, according to two scientists from the Alaska office of the federal Mineral Management Service that oversees drilling.

The environmental assessment was taken away from the agency's unit that typically handles such reviews, and put in the hands of a different division that was more pro-drilling, said the scientists, who discussed the process because they remained opposed to how it was handled.

"The whole process for approving Liberty was bizarre," one of the federal scientists said. 

Well, that's one word for it, but, when you think about it, it's not really all that bizarre. This is government not doing what it should be doing, and therefore what it so often does, not just looking away but encouraging the irresponsible activities of the oil industry -- responsible to shareholders, perhaps, despite the obvious risk, but irresponsible to the broader public, which, as along the Gulf Coast, will suffer the consequences should there be another environmental disaster, and irresponsible in terms of environmental stewardship.

Otherwise, to put it more bluntly, this is just insane. BP gets to do this because it built an artificial island and claims that it's actually onshore drilling (when it clearly isn't)? And the government just lets BP write its own environmental review and consultation documents?

Makes you wonder who really runs the country. Until you realize that we already know who does.

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