Allen: Sleeping with the Enemy


In the “horse race” coverage of the oil spill, and a variety of hearings providing nearly daily revelations of lax regulators and oil companies ignoring safety concerns, we can forget that the function of government oversight is still very much ongoing. And in the case of retired Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government’s point man on the spill response, it’s easy to argue that the sort of crony mentality that got us here still prevails.

Look, nobody doubts that Adm. Allen has distinguished himself in a long and honorable career. While we’re not as universal as the mainstream media in praising his post-Katrina work, he certainly made that situation a bit less horrible than it had been. But during the spill, he seems to be very much locked into a partnership with BP.

The most serious of Allen’s lapses, of course, has been the low-balled oil-flow estimates. In allowing BP to withhold video, and then HD video, for weeks the government cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in fines. And, rather conveniently, the response team would not let in third parties to estimate the flow while the well was still belching into the Gulf. Amazingly, the “official” estimates still track closer to BP’s interests than the American public interest. And this in the face of outside experts taking a wildly different view.

And there are so many other examples of Allen’s difficulties like letting BP get away with waiting hours and hours before reporting that “kill efforts” had failed, or allowing a four-hour reporting period even now, or having the Coast Guard install the insane 65-foot “safety zone” to keep reporters away from the spill – and making those who defy the blackout zones subject to a $40,000 and a felony conviction. Allen has gotten us into a situation where we have ceded control of both private property and government property to BP and its contractors. It’s as if we’ve been invaded.

When congressional leaders and many others suggested using the current “tight cap” to recover oil from the well, at least long enough to determine an exact flow rate, it was a non-starter. By this time, everyone just waited for BP’s response, figuring it would be echoed by the government.

But even the list of outrageous actions and inactions fail to grasp the full extent of Adm. Allen’s “partnership.” It’s down in the trenches, where Coast Guard officers become de facto BP security personnel that it’s really offensive. It’s his continued silence on human health issues, beyond the usual platitudes, that are an even larger problem.

Granted, fans of the Admiral can argue that he’s just following the lead from Washington, which is another set of chilling issues. But for now, it’s hard to see how somebody who has so consistently failed to challenge BP at any level, on any real issue, can lead us into the future.

If this is what he’s like when the spotlight is on, what’s he going to be like when public pressure is less intense? In the months to come, we may well learn that the friendship of our “regulators” with the oil companies they police didn’t end with the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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