THE BLOG
06/23/2010 04:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Party of BP, and Proud of It

Ed. Note: Since this piece was written, Barton (or a Barton aide) has tweeted and deleted a "retraction of the retraction" of the original apology.

Andrew Reinbach is right. Deservedly or not, the political gods continue to smile on the Democrats, gifting them with an opposition so predictable and caricatured — from punishing the unemployed, to defending Wall Street — that they seem to be straight out of central casting. Now, the GOP has morphed into The Party of BP. After Rep. Joe Barton's apology to BP, you'd think they would worry about being cast as "The Party of BP." Instead, they're actually embracing the role.

David Broder says that Barton's comments only "highlight the GOP's propensity for gaffes." He wishes. Broder may yet earn a nomination for the Peggy Noonan Award for Sanity in Conservative Commentary. But here's the thing. Barton just stuck to the script. He only said what 114 of his fellow caucus members, and other conservatives already believe. In fact, Barton is starting to gain supporters.

 

Does this remind anybody but me of the time that vice president Cheney shot a guy in the face, and then the poor guy actually apologized for apparently walking in front of the buckshot? Why didn't Barton just say, "We are deeply sorry we had that Gulf down there (along with the industries and ecosystems it supports) getting in the way of your oil"?

Basically, as Robert Creamer put it, Barton merely said what (slightly) more sophisticated members of his party know better than to say quite so plainly in public.

The way the Republicans reacted to Congressman Joe Barton's "apology" to BP at the hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee reminds you of what happens when a group of teenagers find out that a member of their "secret club" has revealed the secret handshake to the school principal.

Barton had the audacity to say out loud a secret that everyone else in the Republican fraternity knows very well — that the Republicans are a Party of, by and for Big Oil. From Cheney's secret oil executive populated "Energy Taskforce" to "drill baby drill" — and for decades before — the oil industry has held the Republican puppet strings.

In fact, Barton was a day late. The Republican Study Committee beat him to it, issuing a statement that was essentially the script for Barton's apology.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) issued the following statement after the White House announced it had reached a deal with BP to require the oil company to place $20 billion into an escrow fund to pay claims filed against the company in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.

“We all agree that BP should be held fully responsible for its complicity in the oil tragedy in the Gulf,” said Chairman Price. “In fact, BP has already begun paying claims. Any attempt by the company to sidestep that responsibility should be met with the strongest legal recourses available. However, in an administration that appears not to respect fundamental American principles, it is important to note that there is no legal authority for the President to compel a private company to set up or contribute to an escrow account.

“BP’s reported willingness to go along with the White House’s new fund suggests that the Obama Administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics. These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this Administration’s drive for greater power and control. It is the same mentality that believes an economic crisis or an environmental disaster is the best opportunity to pursue a failed liberal agenda. The American people know much better.”

The rest of the story is well known. Barton's remarks set off a firestorm, including calls for his resignation as ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, a demand from House Republicans that Barton apologize for his apology or lose his committee seat, and finally ending with Barton's apology for his apology.

But here's the thing: What did Joe Barton say that the Republican Study Committee didn't say? Or for that matter, what did he say that Michelle Bachman, Rush Limbaugh, Jane Norton, (Colorado Republican Senate candidate), Dave Westlake and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin Republican Senate candidates) didn't say?

In fact, the rhetoric has only heated up since then. Conservative economist Thomas Sowell has essentially joined the ranks of right-wing extremists who see the Gulf oil disaster as part of a covert government plan to evacuate some 50 million people from the Gulf and house them in FEMA trailer camps. Sowell stops short of some of the specifics of the "FEMA plan" (which includes alien hybrids masquerading as U.S troops), but does declare that holding BP accountable to the people of the Gulf region is a step on the slippery slope to tyranny.

Meanwhile commentators and bloggers on the right stand with Joe Wilson, supporting the legal limits of BP's liability, invoking the rule of law, citing a "kernel of truth" in Barton's comments, saying that he merely said the right thing at the wrong time, and calling on him to take back his apology for his apology. (Or is it retract the retraction of his original apology?)

 Conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh is taking aim at Republican leaders for rushing to demand Texas Rep. Joe Barton retract his controversial apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward during last week's congressional hearing.

On his radio show Monday, Limbaugh suggested the GOP leadership likely agrees with Barton's sentiments, but are driven by recent national polls which suggest the majority of Americans support President Barack Obama's push for BP to set aside $20 billion for future liability claims.

"It was a shakedown pure and simple," said Limbaugh, echoing the words for which Barton later apologized. "And somebody had the audacity to call it what it was and now everybody's running for the hills."

Let's start by getting our terminology straight. This is not a "spill," or even an "accident" that just "happened." The oil seeping into the Gulf is not the result of unforeseeable events. It's not an "act of God." (Nor for that matter is it the work of "environmental wackos.") It's not a "natural disaster" caused by forces of nature. It's a result of corporate negligence, a lack of oversight, an absence of accountability, and a conservatism that enables it all, and that would abandon Americans to deal with the consequences of a corporation guilty of all the above. Americans to deal with the consequences of a corporation guilty of all the above.

 

Now, let's review. BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and spilling oil into the Gulf at a rate of (we're now told) 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day. But the April 20th explosion was the last in series of events driven by corporate neglect and conservative failure. Back in May, I blogged about the scandal in the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service, reported by the New York Times in September 2008, in a story of an industry literally "in bed" with the industry it was supposed to regulate.

As Congress prepares to debate expansion of drilling in taxpayer-owned coastal waters, the Interior Department agency that collects oil and gas royalties has been caught up in a wide-ranging ethics scandal — including allegations of financial self-dealing, accepting gifts from energy companies, cocaine use and sexual misconduct.

In three reports delivered to Congress on Wednesday, the department’s inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, found wrongdoing by a dozen current and former employees of the Minerals Management Service, which collects about $10 billion in royalties annually and is one of the government’s largest sources of revenue other than taxes.

“A culture of ethical failure” pervades the agency, Mr. Devaney wrote in a cover memo.

The reports portray a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch.

The reports of BP's corporate irresponsibility are too many to quote here. So I'll summarize a few.

  • ProPublica covered how MMS was flooded with oil ties, under Dick Cheney's influence, and agency's role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That role included bending to industry objections over regulation, such as a proposed requirement to use a $500,000 safety device used in other countries, and that might prevented the present disaster.
  • The Wall Street Journal, in May, published a devastating account of Deepwater Horizon, and the events leading up to it. The article suggested that BP ignored multiple warnings about safety procedures on the rig, and failed to run necessary tests that might have revealed potential dangers. (A final test that of the well's integrity on that day, was run by an engineer whose experience was mostly with land drilling and who was on the rig "to learn about deep water.")
  • A Congressional investigation identified risky cost-cutting decisions by BP that may have increased the risk of a blowout, including: making decisions, for economic reasons, that violated industry guidelines and ignoring warnings from its own employers and contractors to deploy a "lockdown sleeve" that would have prevented the blowout.
  • In an April 14th email, BP engineer Brian Morel called Deepwater a "nightmare."
  • A New York Times article reported last month that BP documents showed serious problems and safety concerns on the rig far earlier than the Company described to Congress. The article said documents showed that the company was struggling with a loss of "well control" in March of this year, and that the company's engineers had warned 11 months earlier that a metal casing BP wanted to use might collapse under high pressure. (The company went ahead with the casing, seeking its colleagues' blessings, even though it violated the company's own safety standards.)

    The same article on at least three occasions, BP records indicate, the blowout preventor was leaking — something the manufacturer said would limit it's ability to operate properly. Neither the company nor regulators questioned whether drilling should commence. Instead, BP sought to delay a federally mandated test of the blowout preventor. Affter denying the request just a day earlier, MMS approved the delay.

    The blowout preventor device was then tested at a lower pressure of 6,500 pounds per square inch; far less than the 10,000 pounds per square inch it was tested under on the previous day. It was tested at the lower pressure until the explosion.
  • A recent BBC report on the $20 billion compensation fund notes that the blowout prevention device failed on that fateful day. Workers noticed a leak and reported it to management weeks before the explosion. To repair the device would have required halting drilling work on a rig that was already well behind schedule and costing BP $500,000 per day to operate.

Since then the spreading oil has destroyed livelihoods, devastated wildlife and begun lapping at the shores of several states(with Republican governors). It has devastated wildlife in the Gulf, and threatens the survival of hundreds of species. The hidden long-term environmental and ecological impact may eventually reveal even greater losses. It has into 65 miles of coastline, and is working its way into the region's wetlands.

 

It has cost some Gulf coast residents their livelihoods, and threatens the livelihoods of millions more. Gulf Coast businesses, state and local economies, already hard hit by the recession, will likely suffer further losses.

 

It's in this context, and during Tony Hayward's abysmal appearance before a congressional subcommittee, that Barton delivers his sincerest apologies to BP. It's in this context that the Republican Study Committee, GOP candidates, right-wing bloggers commentators send a message to the millions of Americans staring this growing disaster in the face: You are on your own.

Basically, Gulf area residents should be abandoned to deal with this disaster as best they can. Government can and should do little to help them.

The rhetoric on the right has made reasoned discussion of what should be done about the problem next to impossible, by appealing to the most extreme factions, relying on simplistic slogans, and employing lies and paranoia to keep a raised pitch. The tactic is an effective way to cloud the issue the way that the rising plumes of oil cloud the water in the Gulf, so that conservatives' complicity and conservatism's fingerprints can't be seen all over this disaster.

 

It also effectively clouds the "kernel of truth" in conservatism's message. Put plainly, the GOP is siding with BP over the people of the Gulf region whose lives and livelihoods are awash in oil.

Certainly conservatives are likely to say that aggrieved Gulf residents can and should "sue the bastards," and take BP to court for damages. That's why they cite the "rule of law" and defend BP's limited liability. Of course, all but the most naive understand that it would be difficult for the average person to take on a company the size of BP, with pockets as deep as BP's, in court, let alone people who awoke on April 20th, to find that they had no more livelihoods, and no way of supporting themselves, let alone mounting a legal case.

Gary Gross, blogging at Let Freedom Ring, in his defense of Barton writes:

Let’s be perfectly clear. I’m not proposing to let BP off the hook. It’s quite the opposite. I’m just opposed to letting a political appointee dole out $20,000,000,000 based on anything other than established law.

Men are corruptible. The courts aren’t...

But, it is incredibly easy for a company with BP's deep pockets to keep a case out of court, or keep a case from going to trial with a series of legal motions and maneuvers, while waiting for a plaintiff to finally be too "tapped out" to afford further legal fees, or finally worn down settling for far less than being made whole. Ask Brian O'Neill and his clients, the 2,600 fishermen and others affected by the Exxon Valdez spill.

After the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashed in Prince William Sound in 1989, O'Neill headed straight to Alaska.

The Minnesota-based attorney had an interest in environmental issues and wanted to help because, as he put it, "there were an awful lot of hurt people."

He soon represented 2,600 fishermen and others affected by the spill. What he thought would be a two- or three-year "adventure" is still the biggest thing on his plate, one-third of his life later.

O'Neill successfully argued the 1994 trial after which a jury ordered Exxon to pay $5.3 billion in punitive damages to O'Neill's clients and others affected by the spill.

Exxon appealed almost two dozen times and O'Neill was there through it all.

In 2008, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where a 5-3 majority finally set punitive damages at $500 million.

It was a significant blow to O'Neill and his clients.

BP is already maneuvering to have all Gulf-related lawsuits against the company heard in the courtroom of a judge with strong ties to the oil industry. Naturally the company would want the cases heard by a judge well-versed in the industry and its issues. While it's not certain that the judge in question would base his rulings on anything other than the law, some lawyers were surprised that BP is seeking to select its own judge in both state and federal courts, where cases are usually assigned to judges randomly.

It's unlikely that Gulf area residents would have an equal opportunity to select a judge who is well versed in how the disaster impacts their families and communities. It's unlikely that Gulf area residents would even have the ability to decide when and where they will seek justice, let alone who will dispense it

But this is one of those things government can do, and should do, that people can't do for themselves: Get the justice they deserve from a corporate entity that can buy all the justice it can afford, which is far more than many Gulf residents can afford.

That's the difference between progressives and conservatives.The former believe it is one of government's role to protect the weak or vulnerable from being harmed by parties who act as if their size, strength, and ability entitles them to do harm, or at least to get away with it — and harm is done, to ensure that the justice is done. The latter believes that's exactly what the government should not do.

Conservatives would rather see the people of the Gulf coast go through what the people affected by the Exxon Valdez went through; a long wait, for far less than a just result. After more than 20 years, the fishermen affected by the Exxon Valdez spill settled for less than 10% of the damages sought. Divided among them, assuming all of them survived to finally be compensated, it amounts to about $192,307 and some change to compensate for all that was lost to the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Three years after the 11 million-gallon spill in Prince William Sound blackened 1,500 miles of Alaska coastline, the herring on which he and other Cordova fishermen heavily relied disappeared from the area. Platt and some others stuck around, fishing for salmon and hoping things would improve.

The herring never returned to Cordova. Platt's income plummeted, severely straining his marriage and psyche. He dipped into his sons' college funds to support his family.

"People's lives were ruined," Platt said. "There were damn good fishermen here in the Sound, and they just said, 'Screw it' and left, and tried to make a living elsewhere."

As for Platt, who stayed: "I wasted 20 years of my life," he said.

Platt and other people in the Alaskan village of about 2,500 people say they still are suffering economically and emotionally 21 years after the oil disaster. About 3,400 miles away, an oil leak that started last month in the Gulf of Mexico is threatening the Gulf Coast.

"Here we go again," Platt said of the oil leak in the Gulf. "I feel real bad for the people who are going to potentially go through what we did here."

The CNN article quoted above says that the herring loss alone cost the region $400 million in the last 21 years. The average fisherman lost 30% of his income, while those who specialized in herring lost everything. A fifth of the fishermen suffer from anxiety and 40% from severe depression.

By comparison, Exxon got off cheap. Even counting what the company spent in lawyers fees, the settlement with the fishermen is just $100 million more than the economic damage done to the region. Count the damage that cannot be assigned a value — the futures that got drowned in oil, the marriages that fell apart, the families that were torn apart, the stress of having lost one's livelihood and still having to come up against a big corporation with deep pockets in an incredibly uneven legal fight for justice — and Exxon got a real deal. In 2008, Exxon expanded operations in the 20+ years since Valdez, and in 2008 became the most profitable corporation in the world, earning over $45 billion. That means the $500 million settlement with the Alaskan fishermen amounted to just a little more than 1% of Exxon's 2008 profits.

Even after profits fell by more than have in 2009 (to $19.3 billion), that makes the Valdez settlement just 2.5% of 2009 profits. And depending on what the Gulf disaster does to BP, Exxon could stand to benefit from a competitor's losses or demise.

The Alaskan fishermen's lawyer says the $20 billion compensation fund may spare Gulf residents what his clients suffered, if it's handled properly.

CNN: This week, BP agreed to set aside a $20 billion escrow account to compensate U.S. businesses and workers who have been adversely affected by the Gulf oil spill. What are your thoughts on that?

O'Neill: I hope what it means is that they're going to take $20 billion and set up a fund for victims and that you'll go to the fund and that they'll pay you interim money and then they'll pay you final money. That's my hope.

And for a lot of the plaintiffs, they may not need to ever go to court, so they're not going to get tied up for 20 years. [In that regard] it would be really positive.

If they're successful in starting to move money quickly, it'll be a huge success, but if they're going to pay anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 people, that's awfully tricky.

And it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of money to set this thing up quickly, and it only works if you set it up quickly ...

For a lot of these people who live from year to year on their fishing businesses, they could be bankrupt by the end of the year. So that's what we have to do is we've got to get money to them quickly.

Conservatives believe this is exactly what should not happen; that Gulf coast residents should get only as much justice as they can individually afford, whatever mercy BP shows them, and nothing more. Certainly the government should not help them seek justice.

Don't take my word for it. Conservatives themselves have said as much.

And they aren't the least bit sorry.