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2010-05-28

BP Oil Spill Confirmed as Worst in US History; Environmental Groups Challenge Continued Oil Operations in Gulf Excluded from New Moratorium

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Although President Obama has extended the moratorium on new deepwater drilling permits for six months and halted operations at thirty-three deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico, some oil rigs are continuing their operations. The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit to halt forty-nine offshore drilling plans in the Gulf of Mexico that were approved without full environmental review. Meanwhile, the group Food & Water Watch is leading an effort to shut down the Atlantis, another BP oil rig in the Gulf. The group warns an oil spill from the Atlantis could be many times larger than the current spill and even harder to stop. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama is heading to Louisiana today on his second trip to the region since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20th. On Thursday, President Obama held an hour-long news conference defending his administration’s handling of the disaster. In what was his first news conference in ten months, President Obama outlined some of his administration’s plans to prevent another oil rig disaster.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: First, we will suspend the planned exploration of two locations off the coast of Alaska. Second, we will cancel the pending lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico and the proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia. Third, we will continue the existing moratorium and suspend the issuance of new permits to drill new deepwater wells for six months. And four, we will suspend action on thirty-three deepwater exploratory wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Many environmental and watchdog groups are saying the administration’s moratorium doesn’t go far enough. On Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Minerals Management Service to halt forty-nine offshore drilling plans in the Gulf of Mexico that were approved without full environmental review.

Meanwhile, the group Food & Water Watch is leading an effort to shut down the Atlantis, another BP oil rig in the Gulf. The group warns an oil spill from Atlantis could be many times larger than the current spill and even harder to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests in San Francisco. Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch, and Miyoko Sakashita is the oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Wenonah Hauter, let’s begin with you. Your response to President Obama going to the Gulf, what you think needs to happen right now?

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, the first thing that needs to happen is that the BP Atlantis platform needs to be shut down before we have another accident. For the last year, we’ve been trying to get MMS to act on this, and we now believe that it’s President Obama who needs to take action in shutting down this very dangerous platform. We filed suit last week against MMS, demanding that the platform be shut down. And we’re asking people to go to the website spillthetruth.org and ask President Obama to shut it down immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: Just one minute on this issue of Atlantis. I don’t think most people realize that these oil — deep sea oil drilling sites are continuing now, as they talk about moratoriums and the closings of, shutting down of these in the Gulf of Mexico. Wenonah Hauter, where is the Atlantis deep sea oil drilling rig?

WENONAH HAUTER: The Atlantis is 150 miles offshore from New Orleans, and it’s 7,000 feet deep. So it’s much deeper than the Horizon. And none of the safety documentation has been verified. So we’re very concerned that there could be an accident at any time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of this particular platform’s importance to the general Gulf oil production, how big is it? And why is there such a resistance to looking at it?

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, it produces 8.4 million gallons of oil every day. And so, if there were to be a spill, it would be five — it could be five times larger than the Horizon spill within five days. And the thing is that we have a lot of evidence about what’s going on with BP Atlantis because of a whistleblower, but we suspect that this is the case with all of the deepwater platforms. And it’s one of the reasons that we’re calling on President Obama to also order an independent investigation of the safety documentation for all deepwater platforms and to also — we believe that there needs to be a new agency created to actually regulate the deepwater platforms and the oil industry, because MMS, even as it is broken up, with its entrenched staff, is not likely to do a better job.

AMY GOODMAN: So what does it mean when President Obama, in the statement we ran of Obama’s just a minute ago, say when he says, "And four, we will suspend action on thirty-three deepwater exploratory wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico," "we will continue the existing moratorium," as well?

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, what that means is that they’re talking about wells that will be drilled. They’re not talking about the existing platforms. And we think that MMS, at best, is dysfunctional and incompetent, and at worst, has been willfully complicit with the oil industry. And there’s every likelihood that the safety documents that are missing from BP Atlantis — and that’s 6,000 out of the 7,000 documents — that this is probably the case with other platforms and that there needs to be an immediate and serious investigation, not just talk.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is now the largest oil spill in American history, but there was a prior even bigger oil spill off the coast of Mexico back in — I think it was 1979. Could you talk about what was learned in terms of the impact of that spill on the Gulf?

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, I think that it takes many, many years for the species to be — to come back and that there are still impacts on the Gulf today.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined in San Francisco by Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at Center for Biological Diversity. Why are you suing the government?

MIYOKO SAKASHITA: We’re suing the government because they’ve continued — the problem with the oil spill that we have at BP actually started much sooner than the April 20th explosion, and it goes back to when the Minerals Management Service has been evading environmental review of all of these projects before they go forward with drilling. So our lawsuit challenges forty-nine of these exploration plans and drilling plans that have actually gone forward and are moving forward without doing any sort of environmental review. And this is actually a problem that’s been pervasive throughout the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas drilling. And it’s essentially — we have an agency that oversees it here, headed by Ken Salazar, that has somehow made the Gulf of Mexico a real lawless zone, where the environmental laws, the marine mammal protection laws, endangered species laws have been able to be — turned a blind eye to them, basically, while rubber-stamping oil industry plans to go forward with drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in his press conference yesterday — it was an unusual press conference for President Obama. First of all, he hasn’t had a full one now in ten months. But also, he was remarkably defensive about what had occurred and said that there were major mistakes that had occurred. Do you feel that the administration is finally moving in the direction of trying to clean up the existing culture of coziness that existed between the Minerals Management Service and the oil industry from the Bush administration?

MIYOKO SAKASHITA: Well, the steps that President Obama announced yesterday, as well as other steps to start to break up the Minerals Management Service and have the environmental oversight separate from the people who receive revenues from the oil and gas industry, are steps in the right direction, although I would say that they don’t go far enough. And one of the things that we really need to do is have a complete halt, a moratorium, to offshore oil and gas in Alaska, the Atlantic and expanded areas in the Gulf of Mexico. And right now all we have is a suspension for six months, which is an important first step, but we really need to take it all the way and really stop the drilling.

On top of that, the problems with the Minerals Management Service really should have been addressed before we had such a catastrophic accident. And when Ken Salazar came into office, we already knew that we had a Minerals Management Service that was cozy with industry, had been involved in a scandal with having too cozy of relationships with industry. And Ken Salazar came in and said, "I’m the new sheriff in town, and I’m going to clean up this agency that’s been, you know, too much run by the oil industry." But yet, in the, you know, year and a half, two years that we’ve had opportunity for reform in that agency, it really took something as disastrous as the Gulf of Mexico spill to start to implement those changes. And there’s just really no excuse for that. And we really needed reform before then, and it was well known sooner than this.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the firing or the resignation of the head of the Mineral Management Service, Elizabeth Birnbaum, Miyoko Sakashita?

MIYOKO SAKASHITA: It would seem as though that that is related to an agency that’s just really been rife with corruptness and needs a complete overhaul, from the top to the bottom. And those changes, we have yet to really see what true changes will come about. You know, at first, we heard, "Well, there’s a moratorium on drilling, we’re not moving forward," and then we’ve come to learn that that moratorium was very narrowly defined, and projects were still being approved in the meantime. And so, the announcement that we had yesterday, although we do hear some possibly positive steps that are coming from it, I would say the proof is in the pudding, and we still have yet to see what actual changes are implemented to make sure that we don’t have another big disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you to stay with us. We have to break, and then we’ll come back. We’re speaking to Mikoyo Sakashita, oceans director at Center for Biological Diversity, and Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. In a moment, we’re going to be joined by the Tucson Congress member Raul Grijalva. He is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. And then we’re going to go to Houston, where we’ll speak with Antonia Juhasz, well-known author and activist. She was arrested after questioning the CEO of Chevron at the annual shareholders’ meeting. Then we’re going to be talking about what’s happening in Jamaica.

This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We return to President Obama’s news conference yesterday, the first after some ten months.

    REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President. We’re learning today that the oil has been gushing as much as five times the initial estimate. What does that tell you and the American people about the extent to which BP can be trusted on any of the information that it’s providing, whether the events leading up to the spill, any of their information?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right. Well, BP’s interests are aligned with the public interest to the extent that they want to get this well capped. It’s bad for their business. It’s bad for their bottom line. They’re going to be paying a lot of damages, and we’ll be staying on them about that. So I think it’s fair to say that they want this thing capped as badly as anybody does, and they want to minimize the damage as much as they can.

    I think it is a legitimate concern to question whether BP’s interests in being fully forthcoming about the extent of the damage is aligned with the public interest. I mean, their interest may be to minimize the damage and, to the extent that they have better information than anybody else, to not be fully forthcoming. So, my attitude is, we have to verify whatever it is they say about the damage. This is an area, by the way, where I do think our efforts fell short.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was President Obama at his press conference yesterday.

We’re joined now on the line by Democratic Congress member Raul Grijalva of Arizona. He’s co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and sits on the Committee on Natural Resources.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Thank you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Representative Grijalva, this whole issue of the extent of the amount of oil flowing out is really — is critical, obviously, to BP, because Congressman Markey yesterday, in questioning some of the executives of BP, noted that the company’s — the fines that the company would be subjected to, if it was found culpable in this, would increase exponentially depending on the flow, from possibly $36 million in fines to over $1 billion in fines, that it would be — because the fines are pegged to the amount of oil that is released in any kind of accident like this. Could you comment on that and also on how the President responded to the issue of the flow?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Yeah, I think Mr. Markey’s point is good. The fine statute that he was relating to, coupled with the Clean Waters Act that also has a fine per barrel there that is up to $4,300 per barrel, could — is a significant amount of money. And there is, I believe, an economic reason for BP to not be fully honest with the American people about how much oil is really spewing out of there, because there’s an attendant cost to it, and a cost that could add up into, like you said, billions of dollars as opposed to a much smaller sum, based on the original estimate of the flow. Now, that original estimate they made, nobody believes that anymore. And we’re struggling whether it is, you know, ten times that amount or fifteen times that amount.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Congressman Grijalva, about the Atlantis offshore drill that dwarfs the Deepwater Horizon. Most people think somehow the drilling has stopped in the Gulf, in the ways that President Obama has talked about moratoriums, but this one is still continuing. You have joined other Congress members in writing a letter. Can you describe what that is?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Yeah, this all emanated from a whistleblower that said that — he said he had serious concerns about both safety and worst-case-scenario situations with Atlantis and that the company was not being forthcoming both with its information and that, through the permitting process, they cut some corners, and then — which has been the case all along.

And I think the President, with his call for a moratorium for six months minimum, is a step in the right direction, but I think you need to suspend production, and you have to totally — and Atlantis being the good example — totally investigate, examine, research and assure the American people that we’re not looking at another catastrophe down the road. It’s prudent. It’s wise. The devastation that’s happening from Horizon would pale if something on Atlantis happened. I think the moratorium and cease in production would have been the next logical step, but I don’t think it went far enough.

I don’t think what’s going on in terms of the restructuring of MMS is significant, with or without the termination of the director. That is an agency that has been part and parcel of this problem, and it needs more than restructuring. It needs a complete overhaul, and it needs — it needs to do the job that it was created to do, which was to enforce, investigate and correct, and collect for the American people the royalties that are due to them.

You know, this rush to judgment of "drill, baby, drill" — you don’t hear that anymore, by the way — has brought us to this situation. It’s an insatiable appetite. And the industry took complete advantage of the federal government, and now we’re seeing the consequences.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Representative Grijalva, you’ve introduced legislation — I think it’s HR 5355 —-

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- which would eliminate the cap on the liability that oil companies have in spills of this kind. What’s your sense of the potential for passing any legislation like that, given the crisis right now and the increasing public discontent with what’s been happening in the Gulf?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Well, I think it’s — I think we have a much better chance than people originally gave us of actually seeing this legislation move forward. And if it were to come to the floor, I feel that it would pass. It’d be very difficult for people to say, "Well, let’s cap it at — let’s keep it at this paltry $75 million." Or, there’s another suggestion of $10 billion as a cap. We’re saying there should be full liability; there should be no cap, that if you — you know, you break this, you’re going to have to buy it. And we’re getting more and more support from it. Senator Menendez had originally had a $10 billion cap, had raised the ceiling, is now attempting to amend his legislation so that it is full and total liability for the company. Those are the kinds of tools and those are the kinds of pressures that we need as a public to exert on companies like BP that do it with —-

You know, the hearing that we had, it was one "I don’t know," "I don’t have that information." That was the response over and over from the executives of BP. And we know they do have the information. And as it continues to look into it, into this issue, you’re going to see more and more about the culpability both of the company and then, more importantly, the culpability of our own agency in allowing the company to get away with what it did.

AMY GOODMAN: I just am looking at something from McClatchy Newspapers, and I’d like to get Wenonah Hauter’s response, of Food & Water Watch, and then Congressman Grijalva. "Facing more than 100 lawsuits after its Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed 11 workers and threatened four coastal states...BP is asking the courts to place every pre-trial issue in the hands of a single federal judge in Houston.

"That judge, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, has traveled the world giving lectures on ethics for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, a professional association and research group that works with BP and other oil companies. The organization pays his travel expenses." Wenonah Hauter, and then Congressman Grijalva.

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, I think that demonstrates where BP is on this. They’re continuing to do everything that they can to play this to their best advantage, and it’s outrageous that this would be heard in Houston by a judge with that kind of background. And furthermore, BP lied to Congress about the BP Atlantis, and we believe that there should be an investigation about that. BP said that they didn’t know about this situation at Atlantis, when we have internal documents that say that they recognize that there could be a catastrophic operator error. And we still have the Obama administration being complicit about this. When Liz Birnbaum testified yesterday and was asked about the Atlantis, she said that there’s an investigation going on, while on April 30th, we received an answer to our Freedom of Information Act request on how many hours MMS had spent investigating Atlantis, and the response was that they had spent no time, because there was no documentation necessary. So these are the lies and the complicity that we see with BP and MMS and why we need the Obama administration to take immediate action and why we’re asking people to go to spillthetruth.com and demand that the Obama administration suspend production of oil at Atlantis immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Grijalva, we’ve been spending the week also looking at the issue of criminal liability. You have protesters -— in a minute, we’re going to talk to Antonia Juhasz in Houston. She spent the night in jail after questioning the CEO of Chevron at the shareholders’ meeting, and this is happening all over the country, protesters in jail. But you have BP executives, like the CEO and others, where the issue of pulling back the corporate veil is not really being addressed — holding corporate executives criminally responsible, whether we’re talking about the deaths of workers or the complete devastation of the environment. What are your thoughts on that?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: I couldn’t agree more that — you know, there’s also been the denial to journalists of access to areas in which they could report to the American people what is really going on with this cleanup, how deep and severe this devastation is, the issue of arresting people that are lawfully protesting the actions of oil companies. And you couple that, as you said just now, with the fact of the impunity that these executives walk around with, they bear not only a responsibility of economic responsibility for what they did, but there is also, without a doubt, a criminal liability that has to be looked into. The Justice Department should be part and parcel. Their presence should be immediate into looking at that there has got to be consequences. You know, the problem is — you know, everybody speaks about this culture of complying with one another. I think that culture permeates the administration, when it comes to oil and this industry, and there has to be a firewall established. And it is not there. And that is why BP, through its lobbyists, has had such pervasive power on Capitol Hill, because they’re able to influence, and they’re able to get away with it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Congressman Grijalva, while we have you on the phone, I’d like to ask you about another topic: President Obama’s decision to employ National Guard troops to the southern border. He addressed this at Thursday’s news conference.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, with respect to the National Guardsmen and women, I have authorized up to 1,200 National Guardspersons, in a plan that was actually shaped last year. So this is not simply in response to the Arizona law. And what we find is, is that National Guardspersons can help on intelligence, dealing with both drug and human trafficking along the borders. They can relieve border guards, so that the border guards then can be in charge of law enforcement in those areas. So there are a lot of functions that they can carry out that helps leverage and increase the resources available in this area.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the President’s latest actions and its impact on your state of Arizona?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Well, we have already close to 646 miles of fence along the US-Mexico border. We have 20,000 Border Patrol personnel along the US-Mexico border, and much of it concentrated in Arizona. That’s about an 80 percent increase from 2004. So I see the 1,200 National Guards as political symbolism, quite frankly. The impact of their presence is political cover for both those colleagues that feel that they’re in difficult districts, that they must show that they’re tough on enforcement.

And here we go again. The appetite of the people that want to have troops on the border and do not want to deall with comprehensive reform, it’s insatiable. All they’re going to talk about is troops. McCain gets on the floor of the Senate, says, "That’s not enough. I need 3,000 alone in Arizona." The impact is very, very —- it’s symbolism. And the impact is going to be minimal to none, because you are not going to deal with the security issue and the US-Mexico border and the violence without coupling any enforcement activity with comprehensive reform and all the other aspects of it. So -—

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Grijalva, will you be at the major rally — expected thousands of people in Phoenix — the National Day of Action Against Arizona’s Immigration Law?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: I’m going to — I’m making every effort to get there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Raul Grijalva is the Congress member from Tucson. Wenonah Hauter, thanks for being with us, Food & Water Watch, and Mikoyo Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, both speaking to us from San Francisco.

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