Nothing shaking on ‘shakedown’ street

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: Congressional investigators have released material documenting troubles at the Deepwater Horizon site before it failed–and a culture of cost-cutting at BP that elevated catastrophic risk. Five days before the April 20 explosion, a BP engineer called it a “nightmare well which [sic] has everyone all over the place.” A detailed letter to BP chief executive Tony Hayward from two House Democrats details five missteps the company took when rushing to complete the Macondo well, including choosing a well design that has too few impediments to gas flow. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich.) letter can be read here with key BP, Halliburton, and U.S. Minerals Management Service e-mails, including one BP officials conclusion of inadequate concrete “centralizers,” “who cares, its done, end of story, will probably be fine.”

President Obama delivered his first primetime address from the Oval hours then met Wednesday morning with BP executives. The 18-minute speech deployed military metaphors to illustrate the scale of both the federal government’s response effort in the Gulf and what’s needed to develop a clean-energy economy. The president prodded Congress to undertake comprehensive reform, but knows he faces strong opposition: ” So I’m happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party -– as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” The meeting between Obama, his staff, and BP ended with the oil giant agreeing to cancel its dividends this year and to seed an independent fund for Gulf damages with $20 billion.
Obama’s speech offered few specifics or incentives to the senators he’s asking to pass his comprehensive energy bill this year, a feat that becomes more difficult as weeks tick by. Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) wants to decide on a path forward in the Senate by July 4.
The heat on BP on Capitol Hill calls to mind a comment by Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) after the Enron and WorldCom fiascos: “Summary executions would get about 85 votes in the Senate right now”
“A Deep Well of Pessimism”: Shakespeare might look at the current state of U.S. politics, particularly on Capitol Hill and conclude, as Hamlet does, “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” If legislators think that a comprehensive energy and climate bill is infeasible this year, then that alone can make it infeasible. American politics and media don’t necessarily handle complexity well–particularly global warming–and climate policy has been growing more complex by the week. It’s a dynamic, volatile situation, and as Nicholas Institute Director Tim Profeta cautioned this week on the Web tv program Duke Office Hours, a “deep well of pessimism” among political leaders can make it so.
An Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the APA concludes that the (net-present) annual cost of the bill per U.S. family could fall between $79 and $146. That’s the Senate bill introduced last month by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Those costs reflect a projected rise in energy prices, consequent changes in the price of other goods and services, wages, and returns to capital. (It’s a much lower figure than it would be if money raised by emissions allowances weren’t shared with households.) The estimate doesn’t estimate “the benefits of avoiding the effects of climate change,” making it a cost-effective analysis, not a cost-benefit analysis.
Flash Flooding Continues: Heavy rains killed 20 people in Arkansas this week and at least one person in Oklahoma. Andrew Freedman of the Capital Weather Gang explains how these events—and earlier deadly flooding in the Southeast—might or might not make sense in the context of climate change projections.
Reliably Rating Risks: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently launched a new “Index of U.S. Energy Security Risk” that weighs 37 criteria annually, including geopolitics, economics, reliability, and the environment. This year’s risk index is 83.7, with a baseline of 100. According to the Chamber’s metrics, the APA could help the U.S. attain greater energy security. That’s what Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations and Trevor Houser of the Peterson Institute for International Economics concluded in a recent Slate piece. The two calibrated a model to reproduce the Chamber’s results, which they were able to do better than 99 percent, and then fed the draft climate and energy bill into it. The risk index dropped eight percent by 2030 over a business-as-usual scenario. Levi and Houser surmise that energy conservation, alternative and nuclear power, and reduced emissions would contribute to the lessened energy security risk. (Levi has a thought-provoking piece on “energy security” here.)
Words, Words, Words: The oil spill and the politics surrounding it continue to enrich mainstream English with new phrases and idioms, documented memorably this week in a SFGate column by Mark Morford headlined, “Your tar balls are in my junk shot.”
The situation has kicked up a notch in the last few days with strong contributions from BP officials calling the Macondo a “nightmare well” that will “probably be fine.” BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg left a White House meeting with Obama and told cameras that the president is “frustrated because he cares about the small people. And we care about the small people.” The so-called “small people” of the Gulf states are not amused, even if the gaffe doesn’t top BP CEO Tony Hayward’s declaration in the weeks after the fatal accident that killed 11 men, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”
Neither of those statements beats out the bipartisan feeding frenzy that ensued today when Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, apologized to BP’s Hayward, who was testifying at a hearing. Barton said he was sorry BP had to go along with the White House’s creation of a $20 billion independent escrow account to pay for oil-related Gulf damages. Say what you want about the fund as a policy measure; Barton did, calling it a “slush fund” and a “shakedown” of the oil giant that evades due process. Immediately, reporters told the world, and Democratic fundraisers blasted e-mail to their supporters. It’s been one of those days in Washington where everything is laid bare: the crass reporting on irresistible but inconsequential confections of news; the party-appartus exploitation of said inconsequential confection for fundraising; and finally, the backtracking and full apology. The latter is much more rare. Within hours, House Republican leaders John Boehner (Calif.) and Eric Cantor (Va.) made Barton retract his statement or sacrifice his high-ranking post. A GOP aide told the Daily Caller, “He was told, ‘Apologize immediately. Or you will lose your position immediately.’”
The hubbub comes the day after members of Congress released their financial disclosures, which the Washington Post perused for oil investments: 30 congressmen owned a total of between $9.5 million and $14 million in oil industry assets. (In a year-plus of Climate Post, this is the first time a personal disclosure is called for: My wife co-reported the story and interactive graphic.)
Trust but Verify: The president inoculated himself against memorable gaffes Tuesday night, but at the risk of not saying anything memorable at all. CNN runs an eight-paragraph account of what the head of an Austin language analysis company said about Obama’s Oval Office address. The factoids are interesting—Obama spoke at a 10th grade level, used 19.8 words per sentence, and words contained 4.5 letters on average (all higher than normal). Still, I’m left wondering why “the CNN Wire Staff” either sought or found no one else on Earth to check to evaluate this analysis. Good for GLM head Paul Payack to have his press release rebranded as a CNN story without challenge, context, or question. Bad for CNN for failing journalism 101 and dressing up a “talking head” as a one-source story.
Meanwhile, on Earth: The past three months have been the hottest March, April, and May since record-keeping began, and—in an apples-to-oranges comparison—David Archer of calculates that industry and deforestation are releasing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere at a rate 5,000 times faster than the BP spill.
Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.