The next phase of the Gulf oil disaster: lawyers and lobbyists descend
We’ve gone from a gush to a seep in the Gulf. Sounds like progress. But in some ways, things are only beginning to get oily. This is the part where the lawyers and the lobbyists come in.
What’s ours is ours: Let’s start with a report from the Mobile Press-Register that BP has been trying to entice university scientists near the Gulf to work on its legal team. According to the article by Ben Raines, BP is offering $250 an hour, and reportedly professors from Louisiana State, Southern Mississippi, and Texas A&M are already on board. But there’s a catch. In return, the scientists agree not to publish their research, share it with other scientists, or even speak about the data they collect for at least the next three years.
“It makes me feel like they were more interested in making sure we couldn’t testify against them than in having us testify for them,” said George Crozier, head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who was approached by BP.
Yeah, that’s it … it was China: One good thing happens when lawyers take the stage: Former partners no longer feel the need to make nice. Case in point: Cameron International, the company that built the failed blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon drill that exploded in April, claims it shouldn’t be responsible because BP had shipped the blowout preventer to China for modifications. That’s not unusual in the oil industry because it’s much cheaper to have it done there than in the U.S. But Cameron says that means it should be off the hook legally. Tim Webb, writing for The Observer, has the story:
[I]f the BOP [blowout preventer] was found to have been modified incorrectly by a Chinese contractor, BP could be found liable for damages on its behalf. It would be almost impossible to successfully bring a case against a company in China, where the rule of law is notoriously lax. One industry lawyer says: “An ‘empty chair’ defense — where BP blamed a Chinese contractor which could not be pursued in the courts — is unlikely to stack up.”
Give us a break: Oil industry lobbyists are swinging into action too, fighting behind the scenes to keep billions of dollars in tax breaks. The American Petroleum Institute is in high whine, complaining that some in Congress are using the Gulf spill to pile on. It considers the revoking of tax breaks a “slight to the industry.”
Then there’s the group representing Transocean, which operated the Deepwater Horizon rig. It sent out a letter — complete with talking points — urging defeat of a House bill to toughen regulations on blowout preventers, and referring to the legislation as “another chapter in the majority’s ongoing ‘war on carbon.'”
Fed alert! Fed alert! Republicans in Congress picked up the beat and have started drumming up paranoia about too much government regulation. On Friday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) went so far as to suggest freezing all new federal regulations. His staff later “clarified” that Boehner didn’t mean a freeze of regulations related to the BP spill. (He may be orange, but he’s not stupid.)
Steven Pearlstein, writing for The Washington Post, offers a perspective you don’t hear very often — that regulation can actually spur innovation:
[R]esearch confirmed … that corporate executives can be stuck in their ways, averse to risk and unwilling to sacrifice short-term profitability for long-term gain. And as a result of these market “imperfections,” sometimes a new regulation comes along that spurs innovation by forcing companies to look at things in new ways. That doesn’t mean that regulation is costless, but it does suggest that, on an economy-wide basis, those costs can be offset by subsequent investment and innovation.
Going nowhere fast: Now that the gushing seems to be over, the focus is also shifting to damage repair. As Justin Gillis and Leslie Kaufman point out in The New York Times, the lesson from past spills is that it will be years before we know how deep the scars run:
Only 20 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that oil spills did almost all their damage in the first weeks, as fresh oil loaded with toxic substances hit wildlife and marsh grasses, washed onto beaches and killed fish and turtles in the deep sea.
But disasters [since then] have allowed scientists to paint a more complex portrait of what happens after a spill …
[O]ften … some of [the oil] has merely gone underground, hiding in pockets where it can still do low-level damage to wildlife over many years.
The Nature Conservancy argues that cleanup is not enough. What’s needed is a serious effort to “reverse the long years of damage” to the Gulf coast.
A Cajun recipe for disaster: Louisiana figures to take the hardest hit. And that, writes Steve Mufson in The Washington Post, may be its destiny as “America’s petro-state”:
Instead of blessing Louisiana with prosperity, the oil industry fostered dependency, corruption, and an indifference to environmental damage. Our Cajun sheikdom’s oil and gas riches — like those of the Niger Delta, the Orinoco belt in Venezuela and the Iraqi marshes — also stunted its development, leaving it far behind states with fewer natural resources.
Such a deal.