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Working In These Times

Thursday, Apr 29, 2010, 10:20 am

As Oil Spreads in Gulf, BP Insists on Self-Regulation

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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The sun sets on grassy marsh wetlands of St. Bernard Parish near the Gulf of Mexico on April 28, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana. An estimated 1,000 to 5,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead.   (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig continues to pour oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was revealed that oil was gushing five times faster than previously reported. The U.S. military is stepping in to help contain the disaster. As usual, the private sector is the very soul of efficiency and foresight...until it needs a government bailout.

As oil spreads over the Gulf, British Petroleum (BP) continues to oppose a proposed rule by the Minerals Management Service (the agency that oversees oil leases on federal lands) that would require lessees and operators to develop and audit their own Safety and Emergency Management Plans (SEMP). BP and other oil companies insist that voluntary compliance will suffice to keep workers and the environment safe.

Whenever a company says that voluntary compliance is good enough, I'm reminded of how philandering South Carolina governor Mark Sanford wrote the fidelity clause out of his wedding vows. He felt a voluntary compliance regime would suffice.

Amongst other things, an SEMP would include a hazard analyses, safe work requirements, training requirements, operating procedures, and emergency response plans. Oil companies are not keeping their own houses in order. An MMS review found that 41 oilworkers were killed while working on the outer continental shelf between 2001 and 2007. Eleven oilworkers died in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

BP spends big to maintain a favorable regulatory climate. In 2009, BP spent $15,990,000 on federal lobbying to sway the legislators on issues ranging from drilling on the outer continental shelf to corporate taxes.

BP is also a major contributor to congressional campaigns, funnelling over $6 million into campaign coffers since 1990. During the 2008 election cycle, BP-linked donors gave $71,051 to Barack Obama's senate campaign, more than they gave to any other senator that cycle. Last month, Obama surprised everyone by coming out in support of offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and other coastal waters.

In 2007, BP even spent $420,000 to hire George W. Bush's former director of FEMA, Joe Allbaugh, as a lobbyist. Allbaugh became notorious for leaving the Bush administration to sell his political connections to private firms.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon is expected to hit the beaches of the Gulf Coast by tomorrow. Experts say the spill could be as large as that of the Exxon Valdez disaster that devastated Prince William Sound in 1989. Maybe the sight of blackened white sand beaches and choking seabirds will make America reassess the true cost of offshore drilling.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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