Monday, July 26, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Spill: Winners, Losers & Goats

Now that the oil has finally stopped flowing and NOAA spill trajectory maps showing an ever shrinking slick, it's worth spending some time evaluating the players and organizations involved in the events surrounding the country's worst environmental disaster. I'm picking the winners, the losers, and the goats.

Bobby Jindal -- Jindal has seriously polished his credentials as an effective manager throughout this crisis.  He took some early criticism for not fully deploying National Guard troops, but explained that he'd deployed what he thought was needed and as Governor, that was his call since non-federalized National Guard troops are commanded by the state's chief executive.  His message has been consistent from the beginning--the Federal government and BP either need to provide the resources needed by state and local officials to protect their shoreline, or get out of the way.  He's also been a consistent clarion on the damage that the ill-advised drilling moratorium would do to the state, regional and national economy.

Haley Barbour and Bob Riley -- Their states haven't been as hard hit ecologically by the spill, and the economic damage done by the moratorium has less of an impact on Alabama and Mississippi than it does on Louisiana.  But both men have shown themselves to be effective leaders during the crisis.  When the federal government refused to locate the proper booming materials, Governor Riley did it himself.  When given the chance to skewer Barack Obama over the lethargic federal response, Barbour famously quoted Napoleon Bonaparte: "Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself."  Both men had established credentials in disaster response--Barbour with Katrina and Riley with Ivan and Katrina. Both have shown the benefit of that experience and expertise.

Thad Allen -- I know some people may disagree with this assessment, but overall, Admiral Thad Allen has done an excellent job, given the task, the resources and the political environment he's had to work in.  His (almost) daily briefings are informative.  He always sounds like he knows what he's talking about, regardless of the subject's technical difficulty.  Whether its booming, skimming and beach cleaning activities or complex engineering and physical characteristics of a runaway oil well and malfunctioning mechanical devices, Allen communicates exactly what's going on and why.  That shows a penchant for listening to the people working for him, and making decisions based on the best information he has available.  He has no agenda and since he's already retired, job security is not an issue.

Billy Nungesser -- Perhaps no one at the local level has exemplified the frustration of the little guy better than Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.  If BP was getting in the way, Nungesser gave them a broadside.  When the federal government was getting in the way, Nungesser let them have it.  Nungesser's parish is probably the hardest hit by the one-two punch of the oil spill and the moratorium.  Fishing and oil & gas are the only two industries of significance in his small parish, and both are staggering.  Nonetheless, Nungesser's leadership has earned him the respect and admiration of the whole country.

US Coast Guard -- The US Coast Guard were the heroes of Katrina, flying thousands of missions and rescuing tens of thousands of stranded Louisianians after the storm. With budget cuts and staffing attrition, the Coast Guard was ill equipped to handle the oil spill.  Rescuing people in marine environments requires the precision use of surface and air craft. But marshaling the resources to fight an environmental disaster requires procurement and logistics capability that are best left to organizations like FEMA. They got mired in a bureaucracy that was none of their own making, and their performance showed it. That said, the men and women aboard the cutters, skimmers, fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft have executed their mission to near perfection.  Despite the hundreds of vessels in the Gulf of Mexico and the thousands of aerial missions in the area, no one has been seriously injured in an accident, and no one has complained about performance--once the resources were deployed.  I know some folks will take issue with ranking the USCG as a winner here, but I really can't fault the Coasties for doing their damnedest with the resources they had.  That kind of can-do mentality is always going to be a winner in my book, even if there are some bumps along the way.

Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter -- Bipartisanship never looked so good.  While Vitter has been more vocal in his criticism of the response than Landrieu, they have spoken with one voice on the impact of the deepwater drilling moratorium.  Both have rightly denounced it as  job-killing bad policy. Both have also called for expedited sharing of federal revenues from offshore drilling.  Until or unless other coastal states approve drilling in their waters, then there is little reason for the governors and legislators in those states to have any benefit accrue to their citizens from offshore drilling.  If you want to share in the royalties, you have to share in the risk.

Ken Salazar -- What a joke.  It was Ken Salazar's Minerals Management Service that approved the original drill and oil spill response plans in June 2009.  It was his MMS that approved a revised version in January 2010 and it was his MMS responsible for safety inspections aboard the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig.  But after the explosion and fire that killed 11 men and began the the slow motion disaster of the spill, Salazar has been a rumblin, bumblin' stumblin' fool.  From keeping his "boot on the throat of BP," to "shoving BP out of the way," he's been a nearly non-stop gaffe machine. In drafting Obama's deepwater drilling moratorium, Salazar changed the supporting documentation to make it appear that a panel of experts had peer reviewed and approved the moratorium, when in fact the panel was opposed to it.  And, in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident, Salazar announced that he was rearranging the nameplates in MMS and creating two three separate agencies, only one of which has been named.  It is not unusual for cabinet secretaries to "move on" after a mid-term election in a new administration.  Salazar may be one of the first to go.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist -- His campaign as an Independent a Turncoat candidate for Senator adrift on a doldrum sea, Crist has tried to make himself relevant in the Gulf Coast region, despite the fact that Florida's beaches have gotten off pretty lightly when compared to the coastal areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. He has flip flopped on the issue of drilling in Florida waters, first opposing it, then supporting it, then opposing it again, all dependent upon the political winds of the time.  Florida's disaster response organization is legendary.  FEMA doesn't even handle debris removal or temporary housing after hurricanes in the state, essentially reimbursing the state for its costs.  So even though the damage in Florida has been relatively light, Florida's excellent response mechanisms have placed little demand on the turncoat. This has let Crist shamelessly politicize the spill by calling a special legislative session to place a drilling ban on the state ballot for the November election.  When the session began last week, the legislature's leadership let it last all of 50 minutes before a motion to adjourn was carried without any debate on the ballot initiative. It was a monumental dud.  A fizzle. Crist still trails Marco Rubio in a three way race, and there's every likelihood that he'll end up third once Democrats rally to their eventual candidate.

Janet Napolitano -- Flat-footed and ill-prepared for any disaster, the oil spill caught the former Arizona governor showing that she has no business heading the Department of Homeland Security, the mammoth federal agency that now includes the Coast Guard.  Napolitano made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows on May 2, the day Obama first visited the Gulf, to declare that the federal government had been on the job "since day one."  It was a pathetic, transparent display of incompetency and an administration that simply had no clue what it had on its hands.  She has since played little official role in the response, with Adm Allen apparently having direct access to the Oval Office.

British Petroleum -- A company with a dangerously bad safety record, leasing a drill rig badly in need of maintenance, made decision after decision that ignored engineering discipline and basic safety protocols. From February 2010 until that fateful night of April 20, BP apparently never erred on the side of safety.  The drilling project was behind schedule and costing the company millions each day of delay.  In oil patch parlance, what BP did was called "cutting corners down hole," a practice that almost never turns out well.  Company executives at first refused to acknowledge a spill even existed.  Company spokespeople refused to provide estimates of a spill rate once the Coast Guard determined that crude was flowing.  The company frantically tried silly stopgap procedures, like "top hat," "top kill" and "junk shot," none of which did anything except falsely raise the hopes of the Gulf of Mexico residents.  The company's liability under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and other statues will likely rise into the hundreds of billions and will be a drag on the company's stock for many years to come.

Tony Hayward -- A well-to-do English gentleman, with the snooty attitude and disregard for the local population to round him out.  While Salazar's slips of the tongue were comedic, Hayward's gaffes were the cause of American fury.  Early during the unfolding crisis, Hayward downplayed the amount of oil relative to the size of the Gulf of Mexico, as if to say, "it's not that bad." In May, as video showed millions of gallons of oil and natural gas spewing into the Gulf, Hayward was quoted as saying "I'd like to have my life back," a statement that enraged those still mourning the loss of 11 men who will never get theirs back.  A few weeks later, with the Gulf still being polluted by his well, Hayward was spotted watching a yacht he owned compete in a sailboat race.  And finally, he appeared in a multi-million ad campaign broadcast across the country, which Americans rejected as a blatant PR shill job.  On July 26, Hayward was quietly canned by BP PLC's board of directors.

Barack Obama -- The Goat in Chief has learned a painful lesson, or so we hope.  You can't campaign your way out of an environmental disaster. Real grownups have to make real decisions, or terrible consequences could occur. The rig exploded and caught fire on April 20.  On April 22, it went down.  Nine days after the accident, the President declared the incident a "spill of national significance" under the OPA of 1990.  Eleven days afterwards, he named his Incident Commander, Admiral Thad Allen, which only then allowed for the procurement and marshaling of spill response resources and assets.  The time wasted between the disaster's genesis and the White House's WTF moment was precious time lost, and it let the worst of the early spill's crude reach Louisiana.  Ensuing snafu's, such as failing to waive the Jones Act and waiting ten weeks to accept foreign assistance revealed an administration with no management acumen whatsoever.  The administration seemed paralyzed, unable to make decisions because frankly, they had no idea what to do.  The image of him squatting on the beach at Grand Isle is perfectly illustrative.

It bears noting that Obama has tallied three vacations since April 20, one to Chicago, one to North Carolina and one to Maine.  He's also managed to tuck in ten rounds of golf in the 90+ days since the incident.  Aloof.  Unattached.  Out of touch.

Rubbing salt into the Gulf Coast's wounds, Obama held his first "hot" press conference in nearly a year on May 27, in which he announced the deepwater drilling moratorium, enraging Gulf Coast residents and raising the ire of even steadfastly supportive Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Charlie Melancon.  His June 16 Oval Office address to the nation--his very first ever--was panned from both the left and the right as a colossal failure.

That speech should likely be the metaphor for the entire White House oil spill response--weak, rambling, ineffective and utterly clueless.

Gimme some feedback in the comments.


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