Relying on mess-makers to fix mess

Of top hats, top kills and bottom feeders [HOT shows similarities with Texas homebuilding.]

By Maureen Dowd, New York Times, 05/26/2010

It's unnerving, disorienting. A particularly noxious blend of helplessness, fear and fury that washes over you when you realize the country has again been dragged into a costly and scary maelstrom revolving around acronyms you've never heard of.

Our economy went in the ditch while traders got rich peddling CDOs and CDSs. Even many bankers – much less average Americans who lost their shirts – were gobsmacked by the acronyms and scrambled to figure out how collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps worked.

And now a gazillion gallons of oil have poisoned the Gulf of Mexico, thanks in part to unethical employees at a once-obscure agency known as MMS – the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service. MMS is charged with collecting royalties from Big Oil even as it regulates it – an absurd conflict right there. So MMS has had the same sort of conflicts of interest as ratings agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's had with Wall Street. [and the TRCC with Texas homebuilders]

Consorting with the industry intensified once two oilmen took over the White House. Dick Cheney, Duke of Halliburton – responsible for the cementing of the calamitous well, now under investigation – had his aides conspire with BP America and other oil companies to draw up an energy policy.

As when derivatives experts had to help unravel the derivatives debacle, now the White House is dependent on BP to find a solution to the horror it created. The financial crisis and the oil spill are both man-made disasters brought on by hubris and avarice. [The housing bubble was also a man-made brought on by an unregulated homebuilding industry with vertically integrated builders who owned their own mortgage companies and taught banks and mortgage companies the art of predatory lending.]

With poignant scenes of oil-soaked birds and out-of-work fishermen on TV, the White House is still scrambling to get on top of this latest catastrophe. The laconic president is once more giving too much deference and trust to rapacious corporate scoundrels and failing to swiftly grasp and articulate the alarm of Americans.

One West Wing official admits that, even with all the crises they were juggling, they should have acted more urgently to re-examine the dark legacy of Cheney in the Energy and Interior departments.

Monitoring the plume of doom – a symbol of national impotence – we're learning another whole new vocabulary, from "top hat" to "top kill." We are trapped in a science-fiction nightmare we can't wake up from, possibly because of a dead battery in the control pod connected to a dead man's switch for the blowout preventer, whatever that means.

We're glued to a House energy subcommittee's "spillcam" website and Google Earth pictures of the spreading slick, nauseated by the news that once more, government officials charged with protecting us were instead enabling greedy corporations.

In a report released Tuesday, Mary Kendall, acting inspector general of the Department of the Interior, described an agency that followed Cheney's lead in letting the oil industry write the rules. [That's just like Texas letting the homebuilders write legislation setting up the TRCC. In both examples, Foxes designed the henhouse. See http://www.homeownersoftexas.org/TRCC-Eulogy.html for a looping set of cartoon images about this issue.]

Larry Williamson, the MMS Lake Charles, La., district manager, told investigators: "Obviously, we're all oil industry. We're all from the same part of the country. Almost all of our inspectors have worked for oil companies out on these same platforms. They grew up in the same towns. Some of these people, they've been friends with all their life," hunting, fishing and skeet-shooting together. [This is like the "revolving door" between legislators, regulators, and industry lobbyists. It's a corrupting influence that's especially strong in Texas under Governor Rick Perry.]

The tragedy is that MMS eerily presaged the disaster in the draft of a May 2000 environmental analysis of deep-water drilling in the gulf. The agency noted that "the oil industry's experience base in deepwater well control is limited" and that given the prodigious production rates, "a deepwater blowout of this magnitude in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico could easily turn out to be a potential showstopper" for the Outer Continental Shelf program.

But MMS got rid of those caveats in the final report, just as they deemed a remote-controlled shut-off switch an unnecessary expense for drilling companies several years ago.

As we watch a self-inflicted contamination that has no end in sight, consider this chilling arithmetic: One oil industry reporter reckoned that the 5,000 barrels a day (a conservative estimate) spewing 5,000 feet down in the gulf counts for only two minutes of oil consumption in the state of Texas. 

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