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The third Bush term.

July 11, 2010, 10:15 am

It’s long since become conventional wisdom that it took the Democratic Clinton administration to bring elements of the Reagan revolution to fruition, just as it would take the New Labour Blair government to bring elements of the Thatcher revolution to fruition. Will we someday be saying that it took the Democratic Obama administration to bring elements of the G. W. Bush revolution to fruition?

“Employees describe being in Interior – not just MMS, but the other agencies – as the third Bush term,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. “They’re working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?”…

“People are being really circumspect, not pointing the finger at Salazar and Obama,” says Rep. Raul Grijalva, who oversees the Interior Department as chair of the House subcommittee on public lands. “But the troublesome point is, the administration knew that it had this rot in the middle of the process on offshore drilling – yet it empowered an already discredited, disgraced agency to essentially be in charge.”…

Undeterred, Obama and Salazar appeared together at Andrews Air Force Base on March 31st to introduce the plan. The stagecraft was pure Rove in its technicolor militaristic patriotism. The president’s podium was set up in front of the cockpit of an F-18, flanked by a massive American flag. “We are not here to do what is easy,” Salazar declared. “We are here to do what is right.” He insisted that his reforms at MMS were working: “We are making decisions based on sound information and sound science.” The president, for his part, praised Salazar as “one of the finest secretaries of Interior we’ve ever had” and stressed that his administration had studied the drilling plan for more than a year. “This is not a decision that I’ve made lightly,” he said. Two days later, he issued an even more sweeping assurance. “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” the president said. “They are technologically very advanced.”

Eighteen days later, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon rig went off like a bomb….

Damningly, the whiteboard also documents the disconnect between what the government suspected to be the magnitude of the disaster and the far lower estimates it was feeding to the public. Written below the federal estimate are the words, “300,000 gal/day reported on CNN.” Appearing on the network that same day on a video feed from the Gulf, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry insisted that the government had no figure. “We do not have an estimate of the amount of crude emanating from the wellhead,” she said….

Scientists were stunned that NOAA, an agency widely respected for its scientific integrity, appeared to have been co-opted by the White House spin machine. “NOAA has actively pushed back on every fact that has ever come out,” says one ocean scientist who works with the agency. “They’re denying until the facts are so overwhelming, they finally come out and issue an admittance.” Others are furious at the agency for criticizing the work of scientists studying the oil plumes rather than leading them. “Why they didn’t have vessels there right then and start to gather the scientific data on oil and what the impacts are to different organisms is inexcusable,” says a former government marine biologist. “They should have been right on top of that.” Only six weeks into the disaster did the agency finally deploy its own research vessel to investigate the plumes….

Both the government and BP have reasons to downplay the extent of the spill. For BP, the motive is financial: Under the Clean Water Act, the company could owe fines of as much as $4,300 for every barrel spilled, in addition to royalties for the oil it is squandering. For the Obama administration, the disaster threatens to derail the president’s plan to expand offshore drilling. “It’s crystal clear what the federal response to the tragedy ought to be,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on environmental health. “Bring a dangerous offshore drilling pursuit to an end.”

The administration, however, has made clear that it has no intention of reversing its plan to expand offshore drilling. Four weeks into the BP disaster, when Salazar was questioned in a Senate hearing about the future of the president’s plan, he was happy to stand up for the industry’s desire to drill at any cost. “Isn’t it true,” asked Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, “that as terrible as the tragedy is, that unless we want $14, $16, $18, $20-a-gallon gasoline, that it’s not realistic to think that we would actually stop drilling for oil in the Gulf?” Unbowed by the catastrophe that was still unfolding on his watch, Salazar heartily agreed, testifying that the president had directed him to “move forward” on offshore drilling.

That may help explain why the administration has gone to unusual lengths to contain the spill’s political fallout. On May 14th, two days after the first video of the gusher was released, the government allowed BP to apply a toxic dispersant that is banned in England at the source of the leak – an unprecedented practice in the deep ocean. “The effort should be in recovering the oil, not making it more difficult to recover by dispersing it,” says Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer and former NOAA chief scientist who helped the agency confront the world’s worst-ever oil spill in the Persian Gulf after the first Iraq War. The chemical assault appeared geared, she says, “to improving the appearance of the problem rather than solving the problem.”

Critics of the administration’s drilling plans fear that the president’s decision to postpone drilling in the Arctic and appoint a commission to investigate the BP spill are merely stalling tactics, designed to blunt public anger about the disaster. “The way the PR is spinning is once that spill is plugged, then people declare victory,” says Rep. Grijalva. “The commission stalls it long enough where the memory of the American people starts to fade a little bit on the issue. After that, we’re back to where we were.”

President Obama pushed to expand offshore drilling, in part, to win votes for climate legislation, which remains blocked in the Senate. The political calculus is understandable – the risk of an oil spill weighed against the far greater threat posed by global warming – but in the end, he may have succeeded only in compounding one environmental catastrophe with another. Even if the climate bill is eventually approved, the disaster in the Gulf will serve as a lasting and ugly reminder of the price we paid for our addiction to oil. “It was a bargain with the devil,” says Steiner, the marine scientist who helped lead the response to the Valdez disaster. “And now the devil is gloating.”

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