Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Obama, senators finally discuss climate bill

The White House conference with US senators on energy and climate legislation originally scheduled for June 24 finally took place five days later. Initial indications are that several senators were cool to the administration’s call for a strong climate move in response to the Gulf of Mexico well blowout, rig explosion and crude oil spill.

The meeting lasted 90 minutes. It was a constructive exchange, the White House press office said in a statement after it was over. “The president told the senators that he still believes the best way for us to transition to a clean energy economy is with a bill that makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses by putting a price on pollution – because when companies pollute, they should be responsible for the costs to the environment and their contribution to climate change,” it said.

“Not all of the senators agreed with this approach, and the president welcomed other approaches and ideas that would take real steps to reduce our dependence on oil, create jobs, strengthen our national security, and reduce the pollution in our atmosphere,” the statement continued. “The president said that there was a strong foundation and consensus on some key policies and [he] urged the senators to come together based on that foundation.”

Carol M. Browner, the White House’s coordinator of energy, environmental, and global climate change policy sent an e-mail following the meeting which sounded the call more dramatically. “The disaster in the gulf is a wake-up call that we need a new strategy for a clean energy future, including passing comprehensive energy and climate legislation,” she said.

“Shifting to a clean energy economy won't be easy,” Browner conceded. “For decades, we have grappled with the issue of how to end our addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have lacked the political will and courage to take this important step towards securing our environment, our economy and our security.” But she added that the Obama administration has demonstrated that it can work with Congress to pass meaningful legislation dealing with health care, economic recovery, and student loan reforms, and that “now is the time to work with the same determination on comprehensive energy reform.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said following the meeting that Democrats were “energized on this issue and our resolve to act on energy legislation this summer remains strong . . . Our caucus remains ready to get to work, but this effort can go nowhere without bipartisan support. We need brave Republicans to step up and demonstrate the same commitment and leadership on this issue that Democrats have.”

Committee leaders seem more interested in dealing with issues raised as a result of the Apr. 20 Macondo well blowout and subsequent crude oil spill, however. At least four hearings and one legislative markup were due to occur simultaneously on June 30 as federal lawmakers race to get something done before the Independence Day recess.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

MMS gets a new name and director

US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar swore in Michael R. Bromwich as the US Minerals Management Service’s new director on June 21. Bromwich pledged to move quickly and responsibly on reforms at the agency, which Salazar renamed in a secretarial order as it is reorganized.

MMS is now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement. It can be called the Bureau of Ocean Energy, or BOE, for short.

“The BP oil spill has underscored the need for stronger oversight of offshore oil and gas operations, more tools and resources for aggressive enforcement, and a more effective structure for the agency that holds companies accountable,” Bromwich said after he was sworn in.

He’s working with Wilma A. Lewis, assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals; Rhea S. Suh, assistant Interior secretary for policy management and budget, and Chris Henderson, a senior advisor, on implementing the agency’s restructuring which Salazar outlined on May 19.

The federal offshore resources management agency will become three separate entities (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Office of Natural Resource Revenue) in an attempt to eliminate conflicting missions and policies.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Audacity of Nope

US Rep. John Garamendi, a freshman Democrat from California, seemed an odd choice for the first witness when the House Natural Resources Committee held its second hearing on the Gulf of Mexico rig accident and crude oil spill. As he testified, however, it became apparent why he was there.

“The purpose of my attendance here and participation in this is to say Murphy was right with his law: ‘What can go wrong will go wrong.’” he told the committee. “We’ve seen plenty of that in the past. In the gulf over the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve seen some 38 blowouts. In California, and this brings me to my point, we saw a massive blowout in 1969 in the Santa Barbara channel that led to a moratorium on the West Coast in state waters for the last 43 years.”

Garamendi then said that as California’s lieutenant governor, “I led the fight to stop new oil leasing in California waters.” Then I remembered where I’d heard his name: He was the state official behind a successful effort to convince a majority of California’s state senate to reject Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2009 proposal, endorsed by the state Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, to help eliminate the state’s $26.3 billion budget deficit by letting Plains Exploration & Production Co. directionally drill into state waters from an existing platform in federal waters. The governor estimated when he proposed the idea that this would produce $1.8 billion of revenue for the state by 2022.

“It will happen again,” Garamendi maintained. “Despite every effort, accidents do occur. And when those accidents occur, should it be from a drilling platform on the West Coast when a blowout occurs, we’re talking about a major problem – environmental to be sure, and economic.” He said that California’s coastline provides $22 billion in annual economic activity and employs 369,000 people; in Oregon, more than $1 billion/year and some 17,000 jobs, and in Washington, more than $8 billion and 150,000 jobs.

“No more oil. We can drill baby drill but we can also count on spill baby spill,” said Garamendi. “And that’s happened. Not just this one incident, as horrible as it is in the Gulf Coast, but it’s happened over and over throughout the world. A huge blowout on the West Coast of Australia lost year took months to contain. And here we are once again. It’s time for a permanent law.” He said that he introduced a bill, H.R. 5213, which would reinstate federal oil and gas leasing bans on the West Coast and make them permanent. Six US Senate Democrats from California, Oregon, and Washington have introduced a similar measure on that side of the Capitol.

Garamendi noted that other US House members have introduced bills to permanently close the East Coast to leasing and increase protections along Florida’s west coast. “It is important for this nation to end its addiction to oil. As long as we drill, as long as we open our coastlines to drilling, we will continue our addiction, just as surely as a junkie on the street will find the next pusher,” he declared. “It’s time for us to say enough and to spend those vast amounts of money that are employed in the drilling industry, to spend that money on renewable energies of all kinds. Solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, all of those things must be our future. It’s our opportunity today to push the junkie aside and to end our addiction, and the legislation that I’m proposing and that my colleagues are proposing set us on that course.”

When he finished, committee member Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who is emerging as the GOP side’s asker of important questions about oil and gas on this committee after Stevan Pearce (R-NM) left at the end of 2008, asked Garamendi if he favored halting all US offshore oil production. When Garamendi said that he did, Cassidy then asked where the oil would come from and noted that tankers regularly spill more crude than drillships or production platforms. A third committee member, George Miller (D-Calif.), who has been in the House longer than either of them, felt sorry for Garamendi, who had trouble coming up with an answer, and said that “the gentleman is saying we should use alternatives instead.”

California isn’t the only state where members of its congressional delegation visibly court coastal property owners’ support by calling for permanent bans on offshore oil and gas activity. When US President Barack H. Obama announced on May 27 that he was ordering a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, US Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) applauded the decision but added that it didn’t go far enough. “The danger will remain until drilling in the Atlantic is taken off the table altogether,” Lautenberg said. “BP’s oil catastrophe in the Gulf is a wake-up call for our nation. Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters will only lead to more pollution, more lost jobs, and more damage to our economy. We need a permanent ban on drilling in the Atlantic, tightened regulations, and a real push to find clean energy alternatives to oil.”

Seeing a Senate Democrat berate Obama’s action reminded me that the president was elected in 2008 with a campaign that, in part, emphasized the audacity of hope. What these and other strident offshore oil and gas opponents are showing now is the audacity of nope.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Birnbaum’s last statements as MMS chief

Before we let S. Elizabeth Birnbaum ride completely into the sunset as US Minerals Management Service director, it’s worth a look at what may have been her final public statements in that capacity.

Birnbaum testified before the US House Natural Resources Committee on May 26 alongside US Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, deputy unified area commander on the Deepwater Horizon fire and MC 252 well’s crude oil spill, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco. Most of the committee’s questions were directed at the other two witnesses, but a few were addressed to Birnbaum.

Her most important message was that MMS was considering additional safety and environmental inspections. “We are reviewing what the standards are for blowout response plans, along with all the other requirements for offshore oil and gas activity,” she said.

She also may have tried to suggest that there are limits to what MMS can do. “Blowout preventer tests are conducted by the operator. We observe some tests, but we do not observe them all,” she said. “The operator is required to keep documentation of the numerous tests which occur on these rigs. If the operator is found to have lied on any them, it is subject to prosecution.”

When committee member Madeline Z. Bordallo (D-Calif.) said that MMS had a technology research assessment program to evaluate the US government’s response to oil spills and asked what the research program had been doing, Birnbaum said that it had studied how spilled oil spread and traveled.

There also have been some upgrades in equipment, she continued before agreeing with another House Democrat from California, George Miller, that the government has found nothing which will assure that oil is removed from water. “I think the idea of devoting more government focus on improving oil spill recovery technology is worth considering,” she said when a third committee member, California Democrat Lois Capps, proposed a national center to consolidate spill technology response.

Birnbaum was much more loquacious when Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee’s Energy and Minerals Resources Subcommittee, asked about allegations that the agency essentially was letting the American Petroleum Institute and oil and gas industry groups develop regulations.

“MMS formulates its own drilling and safety regulations, which incorporates standards from eight professional organizations including API,” she crisply responded. “At times, our regulations go beyond API standards. We recently put out regulations for high-pressure safety seals that went beyond API’s standards.

“We attempt to set very high safety standards,” Birnbaum continued. “It’s hard to compare them to other regulatory regimes, which are set up differently. We regularly reject comments from industry that we just go back to API standards.”

MMS also has memorandums of understanding with its counterparts in other countries on offshore safety regulations, she said. “We called regulators in other countries when we read reports that they require acoustic systems,” Birnbaum said. “They allow them as an option, not a requirement, as we do.” She also said that testing the deadman device while it’s in place puts the rig at risk, and that MMS would like to develop a protocol so that this would not be the case.

Her remarks concerning acoustic systems as blowout preventer backups might have had more impact if they’d been made before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where the leadership made such a big deal about them immediately after the blowout and where Birnbaum was scheduled to testify the afternoon of May 27. But she resigned that morning, and Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes went instead.