Obama and BP: “We were told to stand down”


There’s a fascinating piece in this week’s New Yorker magazine about the environmentalists behind the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline that aims to transport oil from the Canadian tar sands across the central U.S. to Gulf ports. I’ve joined many others in calling upon President Obama to reject this plan — tar sands oil is a dirty and difficult-to-extract fuel that will only worsen climate change at the moment the world needs to deal with this problem…or else. The New Yorker article makes a powerful case against the environmental devastation caused by stripping the tar sands.

But there’s another gold nugget of information buried in the article, and it really drives home something I’ve been writing about since the day this blog began roughly three years ago. From almost the moment that the first drops of oil hit the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the federal government displayed a remarkable knack for siding with BP and against the public. Whether the issue was gauging the size of the spill, requiring the use of proper protective gear, tamping down the use of toxic dispersants or allowing unfettered scientific research, Washington could be counted on to take the side of the British oil giant.

Why? The New Yorker article sheds some light on an environmental mystery:

In December, 2009, Obama left an international climate summit in Copenhagen without a binding agreement to deal with global emissions or even a deadline to reach one. In April, 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, spilling some two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a debate ensued within the Administration. The E.P.A and other agencies wanted to use the event to vilify BP and drive an environmental agenda that would take on the fossil-fuel industry. They found little support at the White House, where Obama’s senior staff believed that such an approach was either wrong on the merits or politically dangerous.

“We were told to stand down,” a former senior Administration official who argued for taking a more confrontational approach said. During the cleanup, the Administration focused on working constructively with BP while pursuing an ambitious climate bill that would have effectively put a price on carbon emissions, the starting point for moving away from fossil fuels. The bill passed the House in 2009, but the following summer, with Democrats from coal states opposing it and the White House unable to find enough votes to overcome a filibuster, it died in the Senate. In November, Republicans won back the House of Representatives, eliminating the prospects for any climate-change initiative. The incoming class of Tea Partiers included a number of climate-change deniers, and Obama abandoned serious work on the issue.

On one hand, this news is not surprising for anyone who was involved back in 2010 in trying to get the truth about the spill out to the wider public. On the other hand, it is infuriating to learn the truth about the timidity of the Obama White House, and how the Gulf was sold up the river to protect a global-warming bill that the administration would abandon  a short time later. In addition, Obama has failed to follow through on recommendations to control offshore drilling — which has grown dramatically in the last couple of years — and improve safety in order to prevent a similar disaster. Not only has the president accomplished little on climate change — despite saying all the right things in public — but his light-handed approach to BP was quite harmful to those of us working to show the real damage to the Gulf Coast caused by the company’s recklessness.

The only good news to take away from this article is that Obama has three years to get things right. Rejecting the unwise plan for the Keystone XL pipeline would certainly be a long-overdue step in the right direction.

To read the entire New Yorker piece about the Keystone XL pipeline, go to: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/09/16/130916fa_fact_lizza?currentPage=all

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