BP Deepwater Drilling Disaster: DC Digs in

Have you ever had a week that felt like a month? This week was another one of those for me. As I look back on the past 7 days, I’m amazed at the volume of news created by the oil drilling disaster, and how many moving pieces are at play. The week started with President Obama’s trip to coastal Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle where he ate the seafood, and saw how hard-hit those tourism dependent economies really are. This was his third trip since he first visited back on May 1, and the first time he ventured outside Louisiana. He then returned to Washington, where he gave the first oval office address of his administration. I was on at Louisiana Public Broadcasting with LSU coastal science Professor Ed Overton, and oysterman Mike Voison to respond. You can watch it here, but the overwhelming response from the three of us was that we were underwhelmed.GRN certainly does not dispute the three priorities the President laid out for the Federal response to BP’s deepwater drilling disaster:that the Government needs to do more to fix problems in the response, or commit to the long term recovery and restoration of the Gulf coast, or that we need a bold energy vision to make sure this never happens again. In fact, those are very close to the three things we’re asking the Federal government to do with our current action alert over at BPdrillingdisaster.org. Unfortunately, we really needed to see a much more significant plan to fix the federal oversight of BP’s cleanup. GRN has been calling for a military takeover and the appointment of a General Honore type (if not the man himself) for weeks now. Yesterday some Senators joined in, but clearly the administration is still locked into the existing command and control structure that isn’t working.The U.S. Coast Guard is roughly the same size as the NYPD, with a charge and responsibilities ranging from port inspection to catching drug dealers and fishermen breaking U.S. fishing regulations. This disaster is larger than any coastal pollution crisis we’ve ever seen. As President Obama said, this is a battle against BP’s spill, so I think it’s past time to bring in a military entity that actually wages war, and can direct resources commensurate with the crisis. It’s time to bring in the Navy to direct the cajun navy, and make sure BP’s money is spent effectively.The bold step, was the creation of a $20b compensation fund, entirely BP’s money, to make sure an independent entity doles it out to the impacted communities. BP agreed to it the next day, and the day after that Texas Congressman Joe Barton apologized to BP President Tony Hayward for the ‘shakedown.’ I suppose Congressman Barton prefer folks seek compensation through the courts, as has served the folks from Alaska so well (20 years later, the court cases and victim damage payouts still aren’t finished). The fact that this fund will likely supplant the majority of damages litigation, and will give folks a far more immediate payout for their claims is a huge victory for the coastal communities, and gives them a leg up in fighting for their future.And fight they will. The same day Barton was apologizing to BP’s Hayward, Texas shrimper Diane Wilson was arrested for shouting down Hayward during his congressional testimony.As to the new restoration plan, I was cheered that the restoration of the Gulf coast’s wetlands was made a priority. That he mentioned the need to do more than simply restore what BP ultimately destroys, and to make the system sustainable, was a real relief. I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t do more to spotlight the hard work his administration had already done to create a restoration roadmap, and the fact that it was presented as a ‘new plan,’ with a new leader gives us some pause, but I trust that the leadership engaged with the creation of the roadmap will quickly get Navy Secretary and former Mississippi Governor Mabus up to speed.The most contentious aspect of the Administration’s response thus far is certainly the temporary halt to deepwater (500 ft +) exploratory drilling, while a Presidential commission investigates what went wrong, why, and how we can address those mistakes. GRN supports a halt to deepwater exploration, unless and until it can be made safe. You can’t look at what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico, in our coastal marshes and the beaches and estuaries of the North Central Gulf and think we should be full-steam ahead. While it’s clear that BP cut corners, and risky decisions compounded the danger of this type of drilling, the whole enterprise has since been exposed as a highwire act without a net. Once a blowout preventer valve fails, there is little the industry can do that is immediate and affective to clean up and contain an accident such as this. Relief wells are seemingly the only relatively dependable response, and depending on the depth of the reserve, can take an unacceptably long time to bring a well into control. Right now, we’re looking at August for BP’s black tide to be stemmed.I ended my month-long week on with a boat trip accompanying Rosina Phillipe, her brother Maurice “Bimbo” Phillips, and his wife Karen, and grandson Brock to check on their oyster reefs, and traditional shrimping and trapping grounds. They are all from Grand Bayou Community, an Atakapa-Ishak tribal community just above Venice in Plaquemines Parish. You may remember Rosina from our first episode of Gulf Tides, our video series covering the disaster, and the community impacts. We’ll be featuring both in the next episode, but until then, let me tell you, you don’t really know how bad this is until you’ve talked to someone like Maurice. He’s spent his life in these marshes, in these bays and bayous, and his very way of life now sits beneath a layer of BP’s crude, and his immediate future is tied to a BP job, with their vessels of opportunity program. Their oyster leases got nailed, their shrimping grounds are shut down, and the marsh they trap in has been hit hard. As he described it to me, he brushed away a tear. I got the feeling, he’s not someone who tears up easily.Aaron Viles is GRN’s campaign director

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