Eric Zuesse: Obama Administration Lies, Then Covers Up, to Minimize BP Liabilities for Deepwater Horizon Disaster

By Eric Zuesse, an investigative historian and the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the Federal Government has refused to investigate why it vastly underestimated the amount of oil spilled in BP’s Deepwater Horizon huge blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and thus refused to understand why the actual liability of BP will never be able to be estimated accurately, for calculating BP’s penalties and compensation-payments.

Several efforts, by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), to get NOAA to investigate this acknowledged underestimate, have now been rejected by the Obama Administration; and, so, as PEER’s Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a final news release on this matter January 3rd, “The only investigation into the estimates of the oil leak rate will be by BP’s lawyers,” who are the very same people who are negotiating against the Government, in order to determine the amount of BP’s liability.

As PEER noted, “The actual oil leak rate from the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is the main factor in setting the fines BP will pay,” but a scientific evaluation, of precisely how large that oil-leak rate was, seems impossible now.

This willful absence of information sets a precedent for future environmental disasters. The precedent is: the responsible polluters can lie about the extent of their pollution, and the Federal Government can refuse to investigate the matter; and this combination of business and government means that if politicians (and the governmental agents, such as NOAA, that are under politicians’ control) are paid enough, in order to induce them to accept a polluter’s numbers on its pollution, then there may be no reliable correlation at all between the firm’s actual harms, and the amount of money that the company will be legally obliged to pay, for its cleanup, damages, and penalties.

Of course, intentional opportunities for governmental corruption are nothing new; they’re established methods of career-advancement in societies that tolerate them, including, recently, in the United States. For example, on 25 May 2006, the Wall Street Journal headlined “EPA Scientists Cite Pressure In Pesticide Study,” and John J. Fialka reported that, “Union leaders representing Environmental Protection Agency scientists and other specialists assert that agency managers and pesticide-industry officials are exerting ‘political pressure’ to allow continued use of a family of pesticides that might be harmful to children, infants and fetuses. … The protest from unions representing some 9,000 EPA scientists and other employees about a pending agency determination is unprecedented.” Pesticide-makers happened to be substantial contributors to Republican campaigns, and contributed very little to Democrats. The “invisible hand” of private industry was corrupting the visible and publicly accountable hand of a regulatory agency within an allegedly democratic government. On 18 November 2008, The New York Times headlined “F.D.A. Scientists Accuse Agency Officials of Misconduct,” and Gardiner Harris reported that, “Top federal health officials engaged in ‘serious misconduct’ by ignoring concerns of scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and approving for sale unsafe or ineffective medical devices, the scientists have written in a letter to Congress.” Makers of medical devices happened to be lopsidedly pro-Republican major political contributors, and so were able to get away with this sort of business practice during a Republican-controlled government.

Then, the very following day, on 19 November 2008, the Wall Street Journal bannered “Ex-EPA Official Faults Probe of BP Alaska Oil Spill: Head of Investigation Claims Justice Department Ended Inquiry Into 2006 Incidents Early, Forgoing Possible Felony Charges.” Jim Carlton reported that the EPA’s criminal investigator, Scott West, had been considering to recommend to the Justice Department “penalties of as much as $672 million and possible felony charges against BP.” But, “The former head of an EPA criminal probe into pipeline spills at a BP PLS oil field in Alaska claims the Justice Department,” which was headed by Bush’s consigliere Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, “prematurely shut down the investigation and settled with the company for less than the case may have warranted.” BP typically contributed almost twice as much money to Republican candidates as compared to Democratic ones, and they were now getting this investment returned to them in spades, as a very profitable investment in the Republican Party. BP received only a $20 million misdemeanor fine.

On 15 November 2008, the Corporate Crime Reporter had already provided a background story about this WSJ BP story: highlighting “Wall Street Journal Editors Put Brakes on BP Story.” Russell Mokhiber wrote that, “The editors of the Wall Street Journal” had “slammed the brakes on a story detailing how the Justice Department shut down a major environmental crimes investigation of BP Alaska. That’s according to Scott West, the now retired lead criminal investigator on the case. West was leading [a] 15-month investigation into the March 2006 oil spill on the North Slope when in August 2007 he was told that BP would be allowed to plead to a misdemeanor. … West says that on October 30, he had a detailed interview with the Journal’s Jim Carlton about how the BP investigation was abruptly shut down. ‘The agreement I had with Jim Carlton was that the Wall Street Journal was going to publish an article about the case on Monday, November 3, the day before the election,’ West told Corporate Crime Reporter last week.” Asked “Why did Wall Street Journal not run the story?” West was quoted there as saying, “I understand that the Justice Department was putting a lot of pressure on the Journal.” This is why Americans didn’t learn, until too late, about the Republicans’ terminating that BP investigation. “‘I was screaming bloody murder,’ West said. ‘I said — I have at least a year to go — give me one more year. No, Scott, we are done. Give me six more months. No we are done. Give me three more months, to at least chip away at some of this stuff. No, Scott, BP wants to wrap up this case.’” BP wanted to settle the case while a friend was still in the White House, rather than be prosecuted by a possibly honest stranger after 2008. And the Republican WSJ wanted to please the Republican President.

But then that possibly honest stranger entered the White House to serve as the nation’s new President. And then the BP spill occurred. Now it was Barack Obama’s turn at bat. Would he throw the game, as his predecessor had done? He didn’t come into the White House as a client of large oil companies. But this didn’t necessarily mean that he wouldn’t try to become one. (After all, a U.S. President really “cleans up” after his term is over – even honest ones do, or at least can.) So: what would he now do?

Obama’s actions (not his rhetoric, but his actions) backed BP as soon as the blowout occurred. The explosion happened on 20 April 2010, and two days later was the collapse, of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the deepest oil well in history (the wellhead being a mile under water, standing atop a drill-hole going down yet another 7 miles to the top of the oil basin), which resulted in the worst environmental catastrophe in history (other than global warming itself), an enormous uncontrolled oil gusher a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico. From the very start, Obama let BP control the crucial estimates of the spill-rates. Independent scientists quickly found out that BP’s spill-rate estimates were fraudulent. On 1 May 2010, the Los Angeles Times headlined “Tiny Group Has Big Impact on Spill Estimates: Sky Truth, with one paid staffer and a one-room office, has caused officials to backtrack and revise what they say about the size of the gulf disaster.” Julie Cart reported that this tiny nonprofit analyzed satellite photos and made mincemeat of the gross underestimation from BP and from the Obama Administration (parroting BP) on the amount of oil which had already spilled from this gusher at the bottom of the Gulf. On May 13th, The New York Times published “Size of Oil Spill Underestimated, Scientists Say,” and Justin Gillis reported that scientists were saying BP and the Obama Administration were using the wrong technique to estimate the volume of oil which was gushing, and were being blocked by the Obama Administration from using the correct technique. Five days later, Karl Burkhart at Mother Nature Network released “Coast Guard and BP Threaten Journalists With Arrest for Documenting Oil Spill,” and he reluctantly concluded that, “The Obama administration, it appears, has higher priorities … namely helping BP in its frantic efforts to keep the public in the dark about what is almost surely the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history.”

Then, on May 19th, Randy Rieland at headlined “Big Oil’s Friends on Capitol Hill Block Spill Liability Increase,” and he reported that Senate Republicans were fighting to retain the existing $75 million cap on an oil company’s liability when a blowout occurs, while some Senate Democrats were trying to raise that cap to $10 billion of liability, and while the Democratic leader of the Senate (Harry Reid) “said the cap should be eliminated altogether” (which would have meant full liability for BP). Meanwhile, conflicting statements were coming out of the Obama Administration regarding the issue of this liability cap. Republicans — and maybe also Obama — wanted U.S. taxpayers to bail out oil companies, whenever those firms would have accidents like the present one, which cost tens of billions of dollars.

Only one thing was clear about Obama’s energy policy: By his not immediately joining and leading the charge (from Harry Reid and others) to eliminate those liability-caps, he proved that he wanted to continue the enormous subisidization of carbon fuels by U.S. taxpayers; he proved that controlling global warming was definitely not his highest priority. On May 20th, McClatchy Newspapers bannered “Low Estimate of Oil Spill’s Size Could Save BP Billions in Court,” and reported that underestimating the daily volume of oil gushing from the spill would reduce the damages BP would ultimately be legally obligated to pay for the spill. However, the propaganda coming out of the Administration and BP offered a different explanation for this: “BP and the Obama administration have said they don’t want to take the measurements for fear of interfering with efforts to stop the leaks.” in other words: Obama was struggling to minimize BP’s liability, and his latest excuse for that was “to stop the leaks.” It made no real sense.

Also on the 20th, The New York Times headlined “Scientists Fault Lack of Studies Over Gulf Oil Spill,” and Justin Gillis reported that, “Tensions between the Obama administration and the scientific community over the Gulf oil spill are escalating, with prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope.” The next day, in the same newspaper, Ian Urbina bannered “Conflict of Interest Worries Raised in Spill Tests,” and he reported that the Obama Administration was ordering that volunteers who were collecting animal carcasses from the spill area must send them to a certain lab which BP had selected, and that another lab, which the Administration was itself using to test water from the spill area, “is part of an oil and gas services company in Texas that counts oil firms, including BP, among its biggest clients.” A Florida official who was leery of sending Florida’s samples to such labs said “Everywhere you look, if you look, you start seeing these conflicts of interest in how this disaster is getting handled.”

Everything that Obama was doing — though nothing that he was saying — was consistent with his objective here being to reduce BP’s liability, and consequently to leave the victims, and taxpayers, to bear as much of the spill’s cost as possible, uncompensated by anyone. Finally, on 10 June 2010, a scientific panel, which the Administration had created (under pressure) to estimate the size of this gusher, said that it was between 25,000 to 30,000 barrels — over a million gallons — daily. Initially, the Administration had estimated that it was 1,000 barrels daily, then 5,000, then 15,000. But this wasn’t really “finally,” after all. Just five days later, Sam Stein of Huffington Post released “Oil Spill Estimate Increased to 35K-60K Barrels A Day,” and reported that “a group of government and independent scientists” came up with this “improved estimate of how much oil is flowing,” essentially doubling the immediately-prior official estimate.

Rolling Stone issued online on 8 June 2010, and June 24th in the printed edition, Tim Dickenson’s scathing and very long exposé about “The Spill, The Scandal and the President: The inside story of how Obama failed to crack down on the corruption of the Bush years.” Dickenson made clear that though the rhetoric from President Obama and his Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was reformist, they lied and were doing everything they possibly could to permit Bush’s policies and personnel to continue essentially as before on energy policy and at the Minerals Management Service. “‘Employees describe being in Interior — not just MMS, but the other agencies — as the third Bush term,’ says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. ‘They’re working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies.’” Furthermore, “Salazar did not even ensure that MMS had a written manual — required under Interior’s own rules — for complying with environmental laws.” Moreover, “BP is the last oil company on Earth that Salazar and MMS should have allowed to regulate itself. The firm is implicated in each of the worst oil disasters in American history,” and had “the worst safety record of any oil company,” including Exxon — the company that finally had to take over the oil consortium’s BP-led cleanup of Exxon’s Valdez disaster after BP’s incompetence as the project-manager became obvious to everyone. “Most troubling of all, the government has allowed BP to continue deep-sea production at its Atlantis rig — one of the world’s largest oil platforms, … in waters nearly 2,000 feet deeper than BP drilled at Deepwater Horizon. According to congressional documents, the platform lacks required engineering certification for as much as 90 percent of its subsea components — a flaw that internal BP documents reveal could lead to ‘catastrophic’ errors.”

And yet, still, Obama was muzzling government employees who were struggling to warn the public about the lawbreaking they observed. For example, “Scientists were stunned that NOAA, an agency widely respected for its scientific integrity, appeared to have been co-opted by the White House spin machine. ‘NOAA has actively pushed back on every fact that has ever come out,’ says one ocean scientist who works with the agency. ‘They [the White House]’re denying until the facts are so overwhelming, they finally come out and issue an admittance.’” But, “Others are furious at the agency [NOAA] for criticizing the work of scientists studying the oil plumes rather than leading them’ [said ‘a former government marine biologist’]. NOAA and other federal agencies were under muzzle. “Only six weeks into the disaster did [NOAA] finally deploy its own research vessel to investigate the plumes,” whose existence BP was denying for as long as they could get away with doing so. Obama was determined to ignore the plumes. His EPA chief Carol Browner announced that three quarters of the oil in the Gulf was somehow “gone.”

Rick Outzen at The Daily Beast then headlined on 17 August 2010, “Exclusive: BP Oil Spill Coverup,” and he found that BP was simply ordering that no further reports would be issued about the plumes, nor even about any “tar balls.” In this regard, Obama was acting as if he were a BP employee, if not a BP stockholder; he wasn’t acting as he was: the U.S. President.

On 2 September 2010, environmentalist Jerry Cope at Huffington Post, headlined “No Safe Harbor on Gulf Coast; Human Blood Tests Show Dangerous Levels of Toxic Exposure,” and he reported that, “Within two days after arriving in the region in mid-July, everyone on our team began getting sick. After our first day out on the water with Captain Lori of Dolphin Queen Cruises touring the lagoons around Orange Beach, Alabama, we all had extreme headaches. … That evening, I developed a gagging, coughing reflex that was so intense and persistent it was impossible to speak to my daughter on the phone. … Over the next several weeks these symptoms continued to worsen until I developed chemically-induced pneumonitis.” He noted that, “The use of the Corexit dispersant 9500 and the highly toxic 9527 by BP, with the approval and assistance of the US Coast Guard and EPA, has been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism. Never before has such a huge quantity of the toxic compound been used anywwhere on the planet. Most countries including NATO allies ban its use.” He interviewed one of the nation’s leading experts on it, who said “The annals of environmental diseases are strewn with stories about physicians who have had their careers ruined” by trying to study these sorts of cases,” and who advised that only if the Federal Government would provide researchers with protection would there likely be substantial research on this in the U.S. “I don’t think even the oil companies that work down there would try and bump off a guy who works with the public health service.” All of this dispersant-use was being done in order to hide the visual effects from the spill, and long-term poisoning of people and of animals was evidently less important, both to BP and to Barack Obama.

Obama had his entire Administration assisting BP to hide the extent of the damage BP had caused. For example, on 22 August 2010, Washingtons’ blog headlined “FDA Not Testing Gulf Seafood for Mercury, Arsenic or Other Heavy Metals,” despite those contaminants being potent in crude oil, and despite fish concentrating those toxins from the environment. Needless to say, the FDA also wasn’t testing for Corexit; they weren’t testing this food for anything. Public safety wasn’t that high a priority.

And, finally, now, on 3 January 2013, whistleblowers and environmentalists might have reached the end of the line on their collective more than two-year-long efforts to press the Obama Administration for scientific evidence on the scope of the spill. Only the spill’s direct victims, and the public, will pay, and none of the executives who caused this catastrophe will go to prison, nor even be prosecuted. They can just walk off into the sunset, with their millions and perhaps billions. After all, they’re “job creators,” and “entrepreneurs,” the new men of the cloth in our post-Reagan, “libertarian,” America. But whose “liberty” is actually being protected here, and are they the people who should perhaps instead be in prison?

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  1. Aaron

    This fits with Taibbi’s theme that it’s now standard government policy to lie on the behalf of our finest corporations, as the government will apparently decide who is important enough to receive the truth. Perhaps all these corporate shills should be sanctioned to a strict diet of fresh seafood, three square meals a day for an entire year of some of the freshest seafood to be found within a one mile radius of the Macondo well head.

  2. The Lincoln of Teratogenesis

    Of all Obama’s crimes – illegal mass evictions, institutionalized fraud, impunity for torturers, disappearance, extrajudicial killing, aggression – this one is the highest and most atrocious. Forcibly holding the populace down while BP poisons them. Genocide for profit. When 9/11 is a footnote, Obama’s treachery to Americans of the Gulf littoral will be remembered as a historic crime. When the full import sinks in, it will be clear to the world that the rot of this state is irreversible, that it’s time to destroy this mafia elite and let America’s regions go their separate ways.

  3. earnyermoney

    The public in this case are from Red states, thus enemies of Barry and deserve to be killed.

    1. citalopram

      Things is, a Republican president would have done the same. Gulf states are part of the problem when it comes to voting habits.

  4. Tom

    It was truly frightening to hear news of the human ‘smell test’ for the food coming out of the gulf after the spill. Most of the toxins in hydrocarbons do not have a ‘smell’ and, humans quickly become unable to smell those toxins that do smell after being exposed. Corexit – makes toxic hydrocarbons more easily absorbable into animals – not a good idea in a food chain that leads directly to the table.

  5. Bill Frank

    A great recap, and reminder, of where Mr. Obama places his priorities. Along with a host of economic and foreign policy issues, the BP disaster offered Mr. Obama an opportunity to openly challenge the destructive practices of corporate criminals. Not only has he failed in this regard, he has effectively protected and sanctioned continued corporate crime.

  6. Max424

    The Gulf is to Watergate, as a highly active, never-will-be-caught serial-killer is to an apprehended shoplifter –the kind who, almost on accident, slips a pack of juicy fruit into their pocket when they weren’t thinking clearly about the consequences of their actions

    Man, poor Nixon. He was President in the wrong era.

    Note: This is what I wrote at the time:

    What we are witnessing is not only the largest coverup in history, by far, it is also the most transparent. That’s what makes this coverup so fascinating, we all get to watch the coverup unfold, see the whole thing clear as day as the whole thing is taking place in broad f-cking daylight.. How cool is that?

    In fact, the administration and BP are currently shouting to all those who are watching:






  7. MIWill

    Seems that the preznit fish taco lunch & gulf swimaroo should be probative. A little balance here please.

  8. Hugh

    We knew much of this even at the time. These are snippets from an article in my Obama Scandals List back when I was still chronicling such things in a contemporaneous fashion. I stopped adding to and updating it more than a year ago:

    The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been a textbook case of government agencies kowtowing to the PR and legal needs of BP the corporation responsible for the largest oil spill in US history. It began with the MMS waivers. Then after the rig blew up, the Coast Guard consistently lowballed the size of the spill for weeks. Characterizing the spill as smaller than it was potentially reduced BP’s financial liability. The EPA was AWOL for weeks then finally ordered BP to find another dispersant other than Corexit which was more toxic and less effective than the alternatives. BP said no, and the EPA folded. NOAA did no initial testing then under pressure in the week of May 10 some results were reported suggesting that there were large plumes of dispersed oil underwater in the Gulf. Rather than publish the information the director of NOAA Jane Lubchenco has suppressed it and even gone so far to try to gag researchers on NOAA vessels in the Gulf. As for OSHA, there have been reports of oil cleaning crews becoming sick from fumes from oil and/or the Corexit dispersant. It has decided that those working on the cleanup don’t need breathing protection. A June 9, 2010 NYT story documents how the government and BP have been restricting media access to areas affected by the spill. Reports of this first surfaced when a CBS crew was threatened with arrest by BP employees for filming on a public beach. The Times story recounts how Senator Ben Nelson was told by the Department of Homeland Security that he could not take journalists with him aboard a Coast Guard vessel for a coastal inspection and how BP officials working with the FAA nixed a flight carrying a photographer from the New Orleans Times-Picayune who wished to take pictures of the oil spill at sea. There have also been numerous reports of BP contractors interfering with news crews and even calling local law enforcement on them. And then there is the clause BP inserted in the contracts of those it hired for the clean up threatening them with termination if they talk to the press. If you look past the speeches, the Obama Adminstration is doing everything it can to protect BP and keep the magnitude of the disaster in the Gulf from the American people. It isn’t working, but that’s not for want of them trying.

    On August 3, 2010, a static kill of the well was effected, that is drilling mud was successfully pumped into the well. On August 4, 2010, NOAA came out with estimates of what happened to the oil spewed into the Gulf by the BP well blowout. It estimated that 25% had evaporated or dissolved, 17% was recovered directly from the well head, 16% dispersed naturally, 8% was chemically dispersed, 5% was burned, and 3% was skimmed. After running interference for BP as well as its long and repeated failures to estimate the well’s flow rate or accept evidence of underwater oil plumes, it is more than a little suspicious that NOAA should rush out such specific figures for what happened to the oil, figures which suggest that 3/4 of the oil has been neutralized and that the remaining 26% is quickly biodegrading. What NOAA’s press release did not mention was that even if these figures were accepted, that 26% represents 53 million gallons or 5 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. Nor did it address the issue of the fate of the natural gas, much of which due to the high water pressures and cold temperatures one mile down never reached the surface. All in all, the NOAA report looked like an exercise in damage minimization. This message was echoed by Obama the same day in remarks before the AFL-CIO:

    a report out today by our scientists show that the vast majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or removed from the water. So the long battle to stop the leak and contain the oil is finally close to coming to an end. And we are very pleased with that

    On February 28, 2011, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement announced its first permit for deepwater drilling in the Gulf since the BP disaster. The permit was issued to Noble Energy, in which BP has a 46.5% stake. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    I could go on. The $20 billion BP cleanup fund was initially supposed to be a down payment. Most of it (I think about $5 billion of it was dispersed in a desultory fashion) never made it to those harmed by the BP disaster. And just as with the banks, it is likely that BP will end up paying a small (in terms of its revenues) cost of business fine for the oil spilled. BP’s use of the dispersant Corexit is now considered even more harmful and a longer term threat than the oil spilled. Finally, with regard to the liability caps mentioned, if the government had declared BP to be criminally negligent, those caps would not have applied.

    One of the reasons I started writing Presidential scandals list (I started with Bush II) is that the powers that be count on our forgetting most of even the recent past. Our attention will wander, our anger dissipate, we and the news cycle will move on, and so if decisions can be kicked just enough down the road, the guilty will escape scot free or pay minimal penalties. And nothing will change. And nothing has.

  9. linda amick

    We are living in a global corporatocracy where government officials shill for transnational BigAg, BigPharma, BigIns, Wall Street and BigOil and Gas. The Military Industrial Complex (via our tax money) in conjunction with these transnationals develop high tech weaponry that also enables control of weather, climate, food supplies among other human necessities.

    The activities of these corporations are destroying the earth rapidly now making the environment inhospitable to living things.

    I was hoping for a financial crash to bring this insanity to an end but the corporate state seems to have covered all the bases.

    I keep wondering where the executives of the corporations think they will be living? Mars maybe?

  10. optimader

    Why is it difficult o estimate? Square edge orifice
    known diameter pipe
    known well head pressure
    known water pressure
    known viscosities
    square edge orific calculation.

    BP used ~2MM gallons of Corexit to sinka toxic mixture becasue fines are realted to surface oil captured. Corexit is now embedded in eh foodchain

  11. Jackrabbit

    And, when they could’nt sell shrimp from the Gulf, the Government bought it to feed to the troops.

  12. Nathanael

    The core crimes are
    (1) selective prosecution
    (2) corruption of the grand jury system
    (3) corruption of the DAs’ offices
    (4) corruption of the judges

    There are a number of reforms (private prosecutions, grand jury education, changes in judicial selection system) which would allow the people to get traction again. I don’t see how to pass most of those changes.

    At the federal level, judges and DAs are selected by the President at his sole whim, with minimal overview by the broken Senate, and the judges sit for life. This is completely untenable in a democratic society; it means our only direct traction for justice is the Presidential election.

    At the state level, it’s somewhat better. DA elections and judicial elections give some degree of control, and judges generally have terms. This is probably the correct pressure point to work on. We’ve already seen important state courts “go honest” when it comes to foreclosure fraud. We need a few elected AGs to do the same thing, and if we elect the right people, they can.

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