Big Oil Unbowed

Congressman Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, grilled the CEOs of major oil companies today in committee hearings that targeted not just BP but the entire industry.

BP, Markey said, claimed the Deepwater rig wouldn't sink.

Wrong.

BP claimed that it could handle an Exxon-Valdez-size spill.

"It couldn't."

And the company claimed the spill was only 1,000 barrels a day.

"It wasn't, and they knew it."

But rather than focusing just on BP, Markey moved on to the alarming similarities among all the oil companies' safety plans.

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The CEOs of ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and BP America sat at the witness table--exuding power in their expensive suits, coiffed gray hair, and deep, measured voices, while members of Congress asked questions, engaged in long-winded statements for and against their industry, and, occasionally, berated them.

"The five companies have response plans that are virtually identical," Markey pointed out. "They tout the same ineffective equipment. . . . All of the companies, not just BP, made the same assurances."

So similar were the companies' plans that they use identical language and "even list the phone number for the same, long-dead expert," Markey said, demanding of each CEO whether it was embarrassing to list the number of a dead man.

The CEOs expressed qualified embarrassment and appropriate regret to the families of the dead workers on the BP platform, but they hardly seemed rattled. After all, the chances of Congress really cracking down on their industry are virtually nil.

Congressman Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, pointed to the same problems as Markey. "You're all on script, using the same words," he said.

Worse, those words turn out to be a smokescreen. The oil companies' cookie-cutter safety plans are worse than useless, as the BP disaster makes clear. Yet ExxonMobil has the exact same plan, using the exact same contractor to deal with a worst-case scenario quadruple the size of the current spill.

"How can you say you could contain a spill four times the size, if BP can't control [the current spill]?" Stupak demanded.

"The answer is, when these things happen, we are not well-equipped to handle them," said ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. The key, Tillerson said, is to prevent the spills from happening in the first place. But here, too, there is plenty of reason to distrust the oil companies, beginning with those cookie-cutter plans and the hollow assurances to regulators who, it has been amply shown lately, are completely captured by industry.

BP's internal investigation, released by Energy and Commerce Committee chairs Stupak and Henry Waxman, showed that BP cut corners on safety devices and well design in order to make up for lost money when the Deepwater project fell behind schedule.

But the oil company CEOs didn't give Congress or the public much reason to think they had fundamentally changed their approach to how they do business.

ConocoPhillips CEO Jim Mulva praised President Obama's pre-spill plan to expand offshore drilling and recommended that the Administration and Congress develop a new energy policy "in place of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts."

"Carbon-based fuels must keep carrying the load far into the future," he said. And, in case anyone thought the oil execs might be chastened by the BP disaster, Mulva told reporters after the hearings that the Obama drilling plan didn't go far enough: we need even more offshore drilling!

“It is a good first step and we think it is important to make more acreage available, we think it is important also to assess what ultimately could be made available off of the coasts,” the CEO of the country’s third-largest oil company told The Hill

Shell President Marvin Odum had warm words for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, saying, "We welcome Secretary Salazar's recommendations on May 27" to pause deepwater drilling in the Gulf--along with his assurance that drilling will ultimately go on.

No wonder the oil execs like Salazar. As the Washington Post first reported, his Interior Department has done them plenty of favors--including exempting BP's "well from hell" from a detailed environmental impact study.

The oil execs took the opportunity of Tuesday's hearings to put in a plug for natural gas and ethanol, in addition to more and more offshore drilling.

And BP America executive Lamar McKay, presumably under the most intense fire, made sure to reiterate the company's claim that it is "going beyond" its legally required duties in saying it will pay "all legitimate claims" resulting from the spill--whatever BP’s lawyers deem that to mean.

No, it was not a chastened group at the hearings.

Of course, they did mouth a few words about how their companies--especially BP--support “policies that encourage conservation."

In particular, Big Oil supports the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act. The authors of the Act held their own press conference right after the oil execs' grilling, to tout an EPA study that shows their plan will decrease Americans' energy bills

Obama, the oil companies, and Democrats in Congress are closing ranks behind the Act as a major step forward to slow climate change.

But Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth, calls it Kerry and Lieberman's "climate junk shot". The Act, according to a statement by Friends of the Earth, "threatens to eliminate critical tools needed to stabilize climate chaos while handing out billions in giveaways to some of the worst industrial polluters in the country."

The companion legislation to Kerry-Lieberman, which passed the House last year, is the Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as Waxman-Markey. It, too, gives away billions to domestic industrial polluters in the United States as part of a "rebate" program to offset the costs of transitioning to a cleaner energy economy.

The Kerry-Lieberman bill includes Obama's original plan to expand offshore drilling, as well as nuclear power and natural gas. Worse, it rolls back the Clean Air Act.

"We think a better strategy would be for the Obama administration to implement existing Clean Air Act protections, while senators work on building support for a stronger bill -- one that doesn't shower billions on polluters,” says Friends of the Earth.

Unfortunately, despite some tough talk in the wake of the worst environmental disaster our country has ever seen, Congress, the President, and Big Oil appear to be more interested in maintaining business the way they have always done it.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive magazine.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her piece “EPA Should Ban BP.”

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