Challenging Cheney

CHALLENGING CHENEY…. The lead headline at The New Republic this morning reads, “Is Dick Cheney To Blame for the Oil Spill? Signs Point to Yes.” Well, that’s an attention grabber.

The piece is from William Galston, hardly a liberal firebrand, and it’s worth a look. Of particular interest, it notes that the Deepwater Horizon rig did not have a remote-control acoustic shutoff switch, routinely used by rigs elsewhere. Why the switch wasn’t there is what matters.

As the Wall Street Journal, reports, after a spill in 2000, the [Minerals Management Service] issued a safety notice saying that such a back-up device is “an essential component of a deepwater drilling system.” The industry pushed back in 2001, citing alleged doubts about the capacity of this type of system to provide a reliable emergency backup. By 2003, government regulators decided that the matter needed more study after commissioning a report that offered another, more honest reason: “acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly.” I guess that depends on what they’re compared to.

The system costs about $500,000 per rig. BP is spending at least $5 million per day battling the spill, the well destroyed by the explosion is valued at $560 million, and estimated damages to fishing, tourism, and the environment already run into the billions.

The Minerals Management Service is the part of the Interior Department responsible for offshore drilling. Towards the end of the Clinton administration, MMS officials wanted rigs to have the acoustic shutoff switches, but by 2003, the agency had changed direction.

What happened in those three years? Well, for one thing, the MMS in the Bush/Cheney era became one of the most corrupt government agencies in American history. The Minerals Management Service proudly embraced an anything-goes atmosphere that led to literally Caligula-like corruption and debauchery — federal officials traded cocaine and sex for lucrative oil contracts, for example.

For another, Dick Cheney’s secretive energy task force concluded that $500,000 for remote shutoff was simply too great a burden, and the former V.P. and his team didn’t want to force BP and other oil companies to spend the money.

I realize the White House is generally reluctant to blame the failed previous administration for the messes President Obama has to clean up, but when the oil-soaked shoe fits….