Tankers run aground, wells blow out, pipes burst. It shouldn't happen but it does. And when it does, the name of the game is containment. Both in Alaska, when the Exxon Valdez grounded, and in the Gulf over a week ago, when the Deepwater Horizon platform blew, it was British Petroleum that was charged with carrying out the Oil Spill Response Plans ("OSRP") which the company itself drafted and filed with the government.
That's because responding to a spill may be easy and simple, but not at all cheap. And BP is cheap. Deadly cheap.
To contain a spill, the main thing you need is a lot of rubber, long skirts of it called "boom." Quickly surround a spill or leak or burst, then pump it out into skimmers or disperse it, sink it or burn it. Simple.
But there's one thing about the rubber skirts: you've got to have lots of it at the ready, with crews on standby in helicopters and on containment barges ready to roll. They have to be in place round the clock, all the time, just like a fire department; even when all is operating A-OK. Because rapid response is the key. In Alaska, that was BP's job, as principal owner of the pipeline consortium Alyeska. It is, as well, BP's job in the Gulf, as principal lessee of the deepwater oil concession.
Chugach Natives of Alaska clean Exxon Valdez oil off their beach, five years after the spill. 1994James McAlpine for Palast Fund
But it was all a lie. On that March night in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in the Prince William Sound, the BP group had, in fact, not a lick of boom there. And Alyeska had fired the Natives who had manned the full-time response teams, replacing them with phantom crews, lists of untrained employees with no idea how to control a spill. And that containment barge at the ready was, in fact, laid up in a drydock in Cordova, locked under ice, 12 hours away.
As a result, the oil from the Exxon Valdez, which could have and should have been contained around the ship, spread out in a sludge tide that wrecked 1,200 miles of shoreline. And here we go again. Valdez goes Cajun.
BP's CEO Tony Hayward reportedly asked, "What the hell did we do to deserve this?"
It's what you didn't do, Mr. Hayward. Where was BP's containment barge and response crew? Why was the containment boom laid so damn late, too late and too little? Why is it that the US Navy is hauling in 12 miles of rubber boom and fielding seven skimmers, instead of BP?
As chance would have it, I was meeting last week with Louisiana lawyer Daniel Becnel Jr. when word came in of the platform explosion. Daniel represents oil workers on those platforms; now he'll represent their bereaved families. The Coast Guard called him. They had found the emergency evacuation capsule floating in the sea and were afraid to open it and disturb the cooked bodies.
I wonder if BP painted the capsule green, like they paint their gas stations.
Becnel, yesterday by phone from his office from the town of Reserve, LA, said the spill response crews were told they weren't needed because the company had already sealed the well. Like everything else from BP mouthpieces, it was a lie.
In the end, this is bigger than BP and its policy of cheaping-out and skiving the rules. This is about the anti-regulatory mania which has infected the American body politic. While the "tea baggers" are simply its extreme expression, US politicians of all stripes love to attack "the little bureaucrat with the fat rule book." It began with Ronald Reagan and was promoted, most vociferously, by Bill Clinton and the head of Clinton's de-regulation committee, one Al Gore.