Watching the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the BP Oil Disaster it’s hard not to be discouraged by the spectacle. Even before the Committee gets too deep into questioning the executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton, the Senators’ questions of the setup panel inadvertently revealed they are as much a part of the problem as the companies they’re trying to nail with responsibility.

That became obvious during the initial panel composed of a Texas A&M Associate Professor and former drilling engineer, F.E. Beck, and Elmer Danenberger, who until January was the head of the Minerals Management Service responsible for overseeing off-shore oil drilling.

Beck was competent and helpful in describing industry practices. He discussed general drilling procedures and safeguards, but he disclaimed expertise in deepwater drilling, meaning the Committee had the right idea but the wrong witness.

Former MMS director Danenberger, on the other hand, came off as a perfect example of someone you’d never allow to be a regulator, as the questioning by Ron Wyden revealed.


Danenberger represents the view that if something awful hasn’t happened to you, you don’t need to think about the worst that could happen. So you don’t have to plan for it, let alone consider the possibility of catastrophic failure and its consequences when you’re deciding whether to allow the activity in the first place. That is, by the way, the essence of US energy policy, now fully embraced by the Obama Administration and most in Congress. Danenberger represents how our government thinks.

But the problems with government oversight of a dangerous industry with plenty of money and influence were best illustrated by the Senators themselves. With only a couple of possible exceptions (Sen. Bob Mendendez of NJ; Ron Wyden of Oregon), the Senators start with the conclusion that should be waiting for evidence to support it: that no matter how dangerous this activity is to the lives of workers or how devastating it may become to the environment and economy of the Gulf, we’re going to continue doing this, because we’re not prepared to do something different.

So we heard Mary Landrieu (D. La) use all of her time reading a statement about how much her state depends on oil industry jobs, how many wells we’ve drilled that didn’t blow up (as though somehow that mattered), and how much oil we get from the region. She told us none of the many spills to date had been this big, as though that was supposed to be reassuring. Not once did Sen. Landrieu tell us how may people in the Gulf region depend on the health of the Gulf or how many communities in her state and others could be decimated by this catastrophe.

Senator John Barrasso (R. Wyoming), not willing to ask whether the technologies we have for deepwater drilling may not be reliable enough to trust with the life of the Gulf, wanted to know instead whether terrorists might have had an opportunity to sabotage the blowout preventer? The witnesses essentially dismissed the notion, dealing a blow to Russ Limbaugh; the equipment failed, so now Barrasso has to deal with it.

But the prize for stooge of the morning must go to Senator Jim Risch, (R. Idaho), who began by saying we must and will continue deepwater drilling, a view probably held by many who are unwilling to think we might move in a different direction. So what to do about the inevitable accidents we have to accept?

Risch stated emphatically that since government is incompetent — Ronald Reagan said that, so it must be true, and if not, let’s make it so — it’s wrong to entrust government with the task of "provide for the public welfare." Since a government regulatory effort so small it can be drowned in a bathtub can’t be trusted to perform the public health and safety function, Risch reasoned, why shouldn’t we let the industry form a private organization to set and oversee safety standards? He doesn’t seem to realize that industry had already gone a long ways towards turning MMS into that model.

A second Senate Committee hearing continues this afternoon with questioning of the industry execs.

More:

AP: Oil spill testimony to Congress: Not our fault

HuffPost/Dan Froomkin, Fingerpointing

McClatchy, US Agency let oil industry write offshore drilling rules

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