Enough, Mr. President

Word on the street is that the White House is preparing to get tough with oil giant BP. The Administration sent a letter Thursday to BP chief Tony Hayward strongly urging him to create a website on which to post data about the oil disaster and to keep the information current.

Not good enough. Not nearly.

And here’s why: BP no longer resembles a responsible corporation — or even an irresponsible one. With each new revelation, BP looks more and more like a criminal enterprise. I don’t care how strongly or harshly the request is delivered, one doesn’t ask criminals to provide information, they are compelled to do so using the full force of the law. BP is already held in contempt by the majority of the American people. Let’s just make it official.

Larry Schweiger, president of the NWF

“The Gulf of Mexico is a crime scene,” observed Larry Schweiger, head of the National Wildlife Federation, yesterday.”And the perpetrator cannot be left in charge of assessing the damage.”

Well put.

The NWF joined ten other environmental organizations yesterday in urging President Obama to “exercise more direct oversight of public safety protection, environmental monitoring, and environmental testing in response to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.” (The groups include the Natural Resources Defense Council. I’m the environment and energy correspondent for the NRDC’s magazine, OnEarth)

According to Mark Spaulding, president of the Ocean Foundation, part of the president’s response may include an Executive Order, already in the works, to improve ocean governance in general. The Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force was appointed last June to make such recommendations. Spaulding, who is not a member of the Task Force, tells me he thinks the EO should be issued.

I’ve known Mark for many years and he has done outstanding research and writing about oceans in general and coral reefs in particular. If he says Obama should issue the EO, then I’m all for it.

But, it’s still not good enough. Not nearly.

Given the magnitude of this event — Tom Friedman rightly called it Obama’s “environmental 9/11” — I think it is not just appropriate but necessary for the federal government to take control of operations in the Gulf. The Feds are the nation’s Top Cops. That responsibility has not been evident in their actions so far.

BP oil rig on fire

If it takes the declaration of a national emergency for the administration to do its job, fine. If the wholesale destruction of marine life, entire fisheries, wetlands, beaches and mangroves doesn’t qualify as a national emergency I shudder to think what would.

While pursuing a different part of this story, I happened upon one of those revelatory incidents that illuminate the scope of things far beyond themselves.

When BP announced that it had inserted a four-inch tube into the gushing pipeline I wondered, like many others, how much oil it would capture. When BP announced that it was bringing 1,000 barrels of oil to the surface each day to be safely stored on a vessel, it was deja vu all over again. The interminable numbers game that began with widely varying estimates of the oil’s outflow seemed to be ripe for repetition in the “inflow” tally. Who, I wondered, was checking their figures?

I called the Deepwater Horizon Response Unified Command, the conflation of industry sources and government spokespeople who are the backbone of official disaster information. I had called several times before and talked with petty officers in the Coast Guard. This time, the person on the other end of the line worked for BP. I asked him who, other than BP employees, actually saw the instruments monitoring the flow of oil up the “riser.”

“We share all that data with the Coast Guard,” said the man, who didn’t want to be identified by name, because he was a subcontractor hired for BP, but not an official spokesman.

Oil Slick

Oil slick, May 15, 2010

I pressed him, does the Coast Guard or any other federal representative actually see the data as it comes in? He had to check with a real BP spokesman for that. After a minute or two of silence, he was back on the phone.

“To my knowledge,” he said, “it’s not being observed or confirmed involving any other agency. It’s just like all sorts of other information we’re putting out.”

That last part did nothing to inspire confidence.

I spent most of yesterday and today trying to determine if what I had been told was accurate. A public information specialist with the Coast Guard didn’t know. He took down my number and promised to get back to me.

I’m still waiting.

Ditto for his counterpart at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.

Still waiting.

This morning, Bloomberg BusinessWeek was reporting that the capture rate stood at 5,000 barrels a day.

“That’s 5,000 barrels a day of oil that is not going onto the seabed,” BP spokesman Mark Salt told the publication.

I called Salt and put the question to him. Does the Coast Guard really not have access to information on the amount of oil recovery other than what BP gives them?

Salt was quite certain. “BP is working very closely with the Coast Guard,” he said.

Yes, but…I repeated the question.

Salt said he didn’t know whether or not the Coast Guard — or any other federal agency — was monitoring the measurements. But, he said, if the Coast Guard had asked to monitor the flow, he was pretty certain BP would have said yes.

Had they asked?

Salt couldn’t say if such a request had been made. But, if it had, the answer would have surely been “yes.”

He promised to look into the matter and get back to me.

And I’m still waiting.

I don’t know for sure whether the United States government simply accepts the information BP decides to share without verifying it, as the man representing BP at the Command Center said. But, after a month enduring BP’s spinning, obfuscating and lying, I don’t think we should have to wait any longer to find out.

Enough, Mr. President.

You are the Commander in Chief. Take command of the Gulf war BP has unleashed.

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