Obama’s Oil Magic

BP has been selling off small pieces of itself to help pay for its liability costs in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s another way it can economize: eliminate its public relations staffers and outside consultants such as the well-connected Podesta Group. The oil giant doesn’t need them any longer, now that the Obama Administration has taken over responsibility for burnishing the image of the beleaguered oil giant.

BP’s new mouthpieces include Carol Browner, whose official title is Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Browner has taken to the airwaves to deliver the mind-boggling message that the BP mess — which had just been declared by federal scientists to be the largest oil spill in history — has largely disappeared: “The vast majority of the oil is gone,” she told NBC’s Matt Lauer. “It was captured. It was skimmed. It was burned. It was contained. Mother Nature did her part.”

Lubchenco presided over the preparation of a five-page report claiming that one-quarter of the 200 million gallons of crude released from BP’s Macondo well “naturally evaporated or dissolved”; another quarter was dispersed “naturally” or chemically; and a third quarter was either directly recovered, burned off or skimmed from the surface, leaving a “residual” of 26 percent, among which is whatever BP collects from the shore.

In other words: Abracadabra, the oil is gone.

If BP had tried this kind of magic trick, it would have been laughed off the stage. The administration, exploiting the legitimacy of NOAA and Browner, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is being taken (somewhat) seriously. In doing so, it is acting as a sort of front group for BP, giving more credence to the company’s claims of having carried out an effective clean-up operation. The remarkable claims about evaporation and dissolution could also help to reduce BP’s ultimate liability costs.

At the same time, the White House is clearly trying to protect itself. The NOAA report can be seen as a justification for the administration’s capitulation to BP on the issue of chemical dispersants. Only a few days before the announcement of the NOAA calculations, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming had released documents showing that the Coast Guard had repeatedly approved BP requests to apply large quantities of Corexit, despite EPA’s claim to have ordered the company to restrict its use of the controversial chemicals.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that BP and the administration have conspired to disguise the full extent of the disaster through the use of the dispersant, which reduces the amount of sludge arriving on shore but is having as yet unknown effects on the ecology of the gulf. The White House is so compromised in this situation that it seems unable to recognize the dissonance between the President’s statement that this is the “worst environmental disaster America has ever faced” and the new message, which is essentially “don’t worry, be happy.”

The positive spin is giving ammunition to figures such as Rush Limbaugh, who have been claiming for some time that the impact of the BP spill has been exaggerated. By encouraging these disaster deniers, the administration is undermining the rationale for continuing the deepwater drilling moratorium and even for the transformation of the former Minerals Management Service into a real regulatory watchdog.

If spills — including gigantic ones such as BP’s — can be brought under control so easily with dispersants and Mother Nature, why bother to restrict offshore drilling? After an incident that should have discredited that activity once and for all, the Obama Administration has in effect paved the way for a return to “Drill, Baby, Drill.” Quite a magic trick.

Leave a Reply