Friday, May 28, 2010

Oily News That's Fit to Print: Hysteria Isn't Helping

President Obama visited Louisiana and conferred with public officials there. He said: "Understandably, the feelings of frustration and anger, the sense that any response is inadequate -- we expect that frustration and anger to continue until we actually solve this problem. But in the meantime, we’ve got to make sure that everybody is working in concert, that everybody is moving in the same direction. And I want everybody to know that everybody here -- at every level -- is working night and day to end this crisis. We’re considering every single idea out there, especially from folks who know these communities best."

The President is more understanding than I am. Certainly there is justifiable anger, and in particular continuing suspicion about BP's attempt to manage news about the entire situation, including alleged strongarm tactics versus reporters. But the cable hysteria, once started, is apparently unstoppable, and it's getting wilder in its misinformation, misinterpretations and irresponsibility. Hysteria isn't helping.

There's a certain disingenuousness about it, as if reporters who are supposed to be informed are suddenly aware of bullying and deception by oil companies, or that years of stripping the federal government of resources and regulatory ability empowered by their mindlessly repeating the political oversimplifications of the shrink the government until you can drown it in the Gulf of Mexico Rabid Right.

What misinformation and misinterpretation? Chris Matthews and his crew going off half-cocked about the Coast Guard chief who seemed not to know that the Top Kill procedure was "suspended." Well, it wasn't suspended. Sending the mud down the pipes was suspended, according to plan, so the pressure could be more effectively studied. Now CNN is criticizing Allen for saying the mud was being sent down when it wasn't. Is that really what he said? This is media hysteria. Yes, the whole thing is extremely bad and it's going to get worse, and the effects will be felt for a very long time. If the genocide of wildlife species isn't enough, there's the human beings who are going to be sickened as well as driven into poverty. We can expect more hysteria when the Top Kill procedure doesn't work. But as President Obama said, when the cameras move on, the government will still be there, doing what can be done.

In a comment on a Daily Kos thread I wrote this: I agree that limiting media access unless areas are too unsafe is outrageous. But there are two other things going on here, regarding government response.

First is that the Obama administration is hampered by government capabilities that have been shrunk. People don't want to pay for government, and then when they need government, they want them to have every advanced resource on hand immediately.

Second is that some things just can't be done or done instantly--it's not humanly or institutionally possible. Yet we've got 24 hour coverage and panic-inducing screamers like Chris Matthews screeching misinformation and ignorance along with legitimate concerns.

Today I thought about a little history: about the months and months at the start of World War II, before the U.S. fully geared up its resources, that the Allies lost battle after battle. The U.S. forces were getting slaughtered in the Pacific for months. What if the media was panicking people 24 hours a day then?

This is a crisis with no good solution. It's going to have long and deep consequences. We're paying the piper. This is the future. Grow up and put your shoulder to the wheel."

Another commenter replied: "What are you doing on this blog? You make sense for chrissakes."

President Obama ended his remarks in Louisiana with this statement:

"But as I said yesterday, and as I repeated in the meeting that we just left, I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis. I’m the President and the buck stops with me. So I give the people of this community and the entire Gulf my word that we’re going to hold ourselves accountable to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this catastrophe, to defend our natural resources, to repair the damage, and to keep this region on its feet. Justice will be done for those whose lives have been upended by this disaster, for the families of those whose lives have been lost -- that is a solemn pledge that I am making."

Oily News That's Fit to Print: "The Federal Government is Fully Engaged"

Early in his term, President John F. Kennedy listened to CIA and military experts who assured him that their plan to invade Cuba, formulated in the Eisenhower administration, would liberate the island. The result was the Bay of Pigs disaster. Early in his term, President Obama is learning who he can trust--and who he cannot. He's learned one such lesson the hard way, in the Gulf oil gusher crisis. “Where I was wrong,” he said in his one hour-plus press conference Thursday, “was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.”

The New York Times account noted the novelty and directness of his admission: "But the president’s concessions of missteps were striking. Admitting fault, after all, is not a common presidential habit, and happens only under great duress. The passive voice has been a favorite technique. President George Bush said “mistakes were made” during Iran-contra. President Bill Clinton said “mistakes were made” during campaign finance scandals. And President George W. Bush said “mistakes were made” during the firing of federal prosecutors."

But as well as admitting where he was wrong, President Obama pushed back on critiques he said were contrary to the facts. Though he was "angry and frustrated" about how the gusher situation has transpired, he said that the government has made “the largest effort of its kind in U.S. history” and was in charge of BP’s response. “Those who think we were either slow in our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts,” he said. “This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred.”

While noting the disastrous contributions of BP and the regulatory agencies staffed by Bush-Cheney, he made something very clear going forward: “In case you’re wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility,” Mr. Obama said as he concluded the news conference. “It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen right away or the way I’d like it to happen. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to make mistakes. But there shouldn’t be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.”

Full transcript of the press conference here. It's worth reading--it answers a lot of questions the media and its screechers have raised. The President visits Louisiana on Friday.

Meanwhile, BP's Top Kill effort has been re-started after a long suspension. The more I hear about it, and about prior attempts, the less likely it seems that it will be successful. But if it is successful, it will be due mostly to the outside scientists assembled by the federal government who are advising on the procedure. Because oil companies have seldom succeeded with this technique, and never in water this deep.

In other Oily news that's fit to print, a federal team issued a new preliminary estimate of the quantity of oil gushing into the Gulf, at between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day, which would certainly make this the largest oil leak disaster in U.S. history.

A preview of the consequences of its extent as well as its nature as a deep ocean gusher, scientists believe they've discovered a huge toxic underwater plume of oil and chemical dispersants, six miles wide and more than 3,200 feet deep-- which is 3/5 of a mile.

Meanwhile, NOAA issued its official hurricane forecast for the coming season, which is in line with other scientific predictions: "The Atlantic hurricane season is likely to be a busy one that may spawn as many as 23 named tropical storms, including up to seven major hurricanes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday. It predicted that 8 to 14 storms would strengthen into hurricanes, with winds of 74 m.p.h. or higher. Three to seven of those could reach Category 3 status or higher — meaning they bring sustained winds of at least 111 m.p.h. “The greater likelihood of storms brings an increased risk of a landfall,” said Jane Lubchenco, the agency’s administrator. “In short, we urge everyone to be prepared.”

This adds yet one more potentially powerful factor to a situation that is unprecedented in several ways. No one knows how the poisoning of deep water will affect the ocean ecology, nor how much the oil will damage endangered species as well as the Gulf fish. Now no one knows how hurricanes will affect the oily waters. Perhaps drive oil to land. Perhaps disperse it faster. It's all beyond what we know, and all very much out of our control.

That's why you take care of the land and the waters in the first place. As President Obama noted today, growing up in Hawaii he learned that "the ocean is sacred." That's a lesson and an attitude that should be foremost, as well as deep in our values.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

The “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
Adam Smith
Illustration: Keeper of the Beach by Tim Paul at Spirit Wrestler Gallery.

Oily News That's Fit to Print: Wednesday Update, Thursday Preview

President Obama will hold a press conference Thursday. He'll announce new oil drilling policies, reportedly including suspension of all drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. But what he has to say about the Gulf will be the most important. If he masters this press conference, he goes to Louisiana on Friday clearly in charge.

In the Gulf, BP is conducting its Big Kill experiment to plug the damn hole, though they say they won't know if it's at all successful for 24 hours or more. Rachel Maddow did report that BP was encouraged because what was coming up from the well was the "mud" they were piping into it, not oil. I'm not sure why this was encouraging, since the mud was on top of the oil and so would naturally be what came up at first, but what do I know?

Rachel also had a real stunner--NBC news footage that showed step by step the uncanny resemblance of this catastrophe to a similiar one in the Gulf in 1979, right down to the same company involved, and especially the same techniques used to to stop it--all of which failed, and the leak went on for months. It wasn't so close to shore, however, and it was in June--not mating season in the marshes, but closer to hurricane season. Plus it was a well 200 feet down, not more than 5,000.

Back to President Obama. The criticism continued today, getting screechier, to the point that a couple of commentators were criticizing Obama for talking about how this disaster suggests the U.S. needs to turn more decisively to clean energy--this was too bloodless for them, not germane to the Gulf. Maybe, except that what they were criticizing was a soundbite, taken out of a speech in which he did talk about the Gulf situation as a tragedy. (Interesting however that making this connection to the energy bill was lauded in the blogosphere.)

Though I think the President needs to take command on this issue, and I hope and expect him to explain just what's been going on, we also have to concede that he has other problems to deal with. It did look for a day that a new Korean war might erupt, and that danger hasn't entirely passed. Immigration, gays in the military, etc. are all heating up in Congress, but the most important and under-covered issue is the Jobs Bill, which includes crucial extensions of unemployment benefits. It's the closest we'll get to a "second stimulus" at a critical moment in economic recovery.

Another under-covered story--and I'm surprised that the Rabid Right media hasn't jumped on this one--is the beheading of the White House Court Jester for inappropriate jokes about the national debt.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Oily News That's Fit to Print

Updates late Tuesday:

"Dogged by delays and intense pressure from the Obama administration, BP faces a pivotal day on Wednesday as it attempts a tricky plan to clog the gushing Gulf of Mexico oil well five weeks into the disaster. If the "top kill" procedure joins the list of BP failures to plug the leak, U.S. President Barack Obama's government may have no choice but to take central charge of the response to what is considered the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Obama has told aides in recent days to "plug the damn hole" and he will head to the Louisiana Gulf coast on Friday for the second time since the April 20 rig blast that killed 11 and unleashed the oil. "

There was some indication that by Tuesday night Pacific, the Top Kill effort had begun.

President Obama is expected to outline new policies regarding deep oil leases on Thursday.

Commentators Lawrence O'Donnell and David Gergen joined the chorus calling for "a bullhorn moment" from President Obama, and a more forceful and coordinated federal effort. Gergen even declared that if World War II had been run like this operation, we would "all be speaking German," which--and somebody might look this up--sounds like something he's said before, perhaps about Katrina.

BP may or may not be about to try something else--the so-called "Top Kill"-- to stop the Gulf gusher. The effort was scheduled for Wednesday but at this moment is in some doubt.

President Obama is scheduled to visit the Gulf region on Friday.

There's a lot of noise, a lot of justified emotion amidst the political opportunism. President Obama needs to speak to this, but actions aren't always dramatic--here's a piece on what the government is doing. It's big but dull and hence invisible.

And speaking of what we can't see, there's as much or more damage happening underwater.

The Washington Post reports growing conflict between some in the Obama administration and BP on efforts related to the Gulf gusher. AP is the latest to show that BP was deeply involved in the notorious Exxon Valdez spill.

The New York Times looks at a forthcoming report that documents the extent to which Bush-Cheney "regulators" were wholly owned by the oil companies.
TIME has a similar story. Bob Herbert writes about the results of this "cosy relationship."

The Gulf gusher has raised concerns over expanded offshore drilling in Canadian waters. Canada's oversight and regulations are much more stringent than U.S., but none of the articles I reviewed confirmed something intriguing I heard on TV: that Canada requires a relief well be dug at the same time as the main well. A relief well is only tested method for stopping the flow. One is being dug at the Gulf site but won't be ready until August at the soonest.

Don't Panic, It's Towel Day!

Among the wisdom embedded in the immortal Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the home truth that "A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have." So on May 25, Douglas Adams fans carry a towel everywhere they go, in his honor. Earthlings may be turning out to not be mostly harmless, but it's a great fiction anyway. For more on this 9-year tradition, here's Wired.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Danger Zone

The anger and dismay over the visible damage caused by the Gulf oil gusher is increasing, and at this moment the Obama administration is in danger of being swamped politically unless the President gets personally and visibly involved, and there is some direct response and visible action.

Here's why I say this now. First, sharp criticism is coming from Democrats as well as Republicans, particularly those with ties to Louisiana and the Gulf region. Also among them now is Keith Olbermann, who has gone to the extent of dumping his count of the days since Bush declared Mission Accomplished in Iraq, and is now counting the days since that oil rig exploded.

Second, administration responses to criticism and news over the past 24 hours has been awful. The Coast Guard Commandant in charge on the scene may be technically correct, but his message about federal helplessness, and contradiction of the Secretary of Interior, isn't helpful.

There has been no effective answer to the New York Times story about new permits and waivers being granted for even deeper ocean drilling. Energy Secretary Chu made a disastrous joke to Rachel about only knowing what he reads in the papers, about actions presumably within his own department. [Correction: this may have been the Interior Dept.'s area, not Energy.]

Plus, BP has out and out said it is defying an EPA order to use less toxic contaminants, and the EPA seems to be backing down. This may be realistic--it may be that BP hasn't been able to find a substitute in time--but it looks pretty bad.

The bottom line is that the mantra of this becoming Obama's Katrina is gaining traction. When a reporter like Howard Fineman says that his Gulf sources claim the Obama administration "doesn't get it," this is a huge red flag.

President Obama has maybe 48 hours, maybe just 24, to prevent this story from taking control, with disastrous long-term effects on his presidency. And this does mean something beyond politics. A lot of people are seeing very scary imagery--oil on shore next to inserts of oil continuing to gush from the well--and they need visible leadership. All that we load onto our presidents in terms of expectations may not be realistic or fair, but we do it. And people are crying out for visible leadership.

There are two main elements to this crisis: the ongoing gusher that needs to be plugged, and the oil coming onto beaches and marshes and up waterways that needs to be held off, and cleaned up when it does arrive. I don't credit a lot of the barroom proposals for stopping the gusher, but I do listen to experienced people in the Gulf who say they know how to stop the oil from coming in, if they just had the permits. I say give them the damn permits, help them out, it can't be worse than doing nothing, or leaving that aspect of the crisis to BP.

It's the Innocent Who Are Paying

Photo: A young heron lies dying in the oil-soaked marsh.

AP: "Several pelicans were coated in oil on Barataria Bay off Louisiana, their usually brown and white feathers now jet black. Pelican eggs were glazed with rust-colored gunk, and new hatchlings and nests were also coated with crude.

It is unclear if the area can even be cleaned, or if the birds can be saved. It is also unknown how much of the Gulf Coast will end up looking the same way because of a well that has spewed untold millions of gallons of oil since an offshore rig exploded more than a month ago. "As we talk, a total of more than 65 miles of our shoreline now has been oiled," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who announced new efforts to keep the spill from spreading."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Latest from the War on Terra

Now that oil is reaching land plus the video feed of the continuing gusher, this story is dominating news and the blogosphere. Most of the rec diaries at Kos concern it, including a couple that pick up on this article that suggests the EPA is considering an action that would instantly void all U.S. contracts with BP.

Meanwhile, EPA head Lisa Jackson is on the scene for several days, and Interior Sec Salazar is going to be. The NY Times quotes Salazar as saying about BP: "if we find they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way, appropriately.”

Though U.S. attention is focused on the Gulf, that Icelandic volcano is still causing problems for air traffic in Europe and the UK. And the coincidence of poor initial media coverage and this monster Gulf story has perhaps permanently obscured the significance of what's being called "Nashville's Katrina"--the superflood in early May that this piece suggests is a harbinger of the Climate Crisis future.

The President v. the Fulminators

All that keen live video of the oil gushing out has given cable bloviators more time to fill than they have knowledge on the Gulf oil gusher. I caught one segment on CNN in which they interviewed just about anybody who said they had an idea on how to stop the spill. Maybe some idea will turn out good, but this is a lot like journalism as barroom bullshit.

President Obama appointed a bipartisan commission to investigate how such spills can be prevented and if not stopped, then dealt with better. As Climate Progress pointed out, this is already more than Bush was willing to do for the monumental failures of Katrina response. But while people are understandably upset at what's going on, and want somebody to solve it--somebody like our official daddy, the President--it's a bit irresponsible (though hardly unusual) for some cablemouths to be fulminating about presidential lassitude without finding out the facts of the matter.

Chris Matthews has been very vocal about it--I want Harry Truman! he shouts. Send in the Seabees, send aircraft carriers and submarines, plug up the damn oil! What he learned from an expert, though, was chastening--and appropriately scary. He found that the President and the federal government are doing all it is possible for them to do--partly because after decades of privatization, tax cuts to the rich and starving the government of resources--the only institutions with the technology to deal with this are corporations, and other countries. For example, the U.S. literally does not have a submarine capable of functioning at those depths. Oil companies do. And so does Russia, China, Japan and France.

This of course is a classic and not unforeseeable problem of depending on corporations like Halliburton and Blackwater to run your wars, disaster relief and increasingly your country. When they're the problem, you have no solution, and no resources to apply.

Here are some excerpts from this interview in a diary by NedSparks at Kos, with links to the full interview transcript and the White House page on what the government is doing in the Gulf to deal with this unfolding tragedy.