By Robert Scheer
“Drill, baby, drill!” Those were the words that Sarah Palin used to electrify the 2008 Republican National Convention. But while she popularized that environment-be-damned slogan, it had already defined the eight years of oil-drilling policy that prevailed during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Those red state voters of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana whose livelihood is now threatened by the idiocy of that unfettered deregulatory stance might well be having second thoughts. So, too, those Democratic Party opportunists who had prevailed on President Barack Obama to one-up the GOP by vastly increasing the scope of offshore drilling.
Not so Palin, who last week took to Twitter to defend such inanities, blaming the oil spill problem not on lax regulation but rather on those damn foreigners. Ignoring the fact that her target alien company, British Petroleum, had employed her own husband, Palin tweeted: “Gulf: learn from Alaska’s lesson w/foreign oil co’s: don’t naively trust—VERIFY.”
Great, except that it is beyond the power of any one state to adequately verify what is going on deep down offshore, and as Tuesday’s Senate testimony of top executives from the three companies implicated in this spill made clear, there is plenty of blame for the Brits to share with their good ol’ American counterparts. What could be more American than Dick Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, which constructed the well? Or Transocean, which operated the rig and is a homegrown product of the Southwestern energy industry?
But they are all three exactly the same: multinational corporations that couldn’t care less about the countries where their home offices happen to be based. Recall Halliburton’s controversial corporate relocation to Dubai three years ago and Transocean’s registration in the Cayman Islands. What they are loyal to is the bottom line and the executive bonuses that it portends. They fly the flag of a particular nation only for convenience, and it is their threat to shift their base of operations that is used to effectively thwart government regulation.
As her recent tweet confirms, Palin admits verification is necessary, and in a Facebook posting, she bases that on her state’s experience with the Exxon Valdez disaster. In the case of the Gulf oil spill, verification was the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Mineral Management Service. That’s the same pathetic industry-whipped outfit whose personnel were literally in bed with representatives of various companies they were supposed to be regulating.
But far beyond such racy incentives to look the other way, the MMS, over the last decade of deregulation mania, had been encouraged to become a handmaiden of the industry rather than its supervisor in any meaningful sense of that term. That is the inescapable conclusion of a devastating Wall Street Journal report last week that concluded, “The small U.S agency that oversees offshore drilling doesn’t write or implement most safety regulations, having gradually shifted such responsibilities to the oil industry itself for more than a decade.”
That was a Republican-led decade in which regulation became a dirty word, and as with the financial meltdown, we are now witnessing, in the oil spill catastrophe, the dire consequences of radical free-market ideology run amok. If offshore drilling is required for our economic well-being, a questionable enough proposition given the inherent risks, it is a cause that will be set back dramatically by the current disaster.
The Obama administration, which was about to launch a vast expansion of such efforts, has had to pull back, and there are few in either party who will now question that a much more prudent course is in order. Hence the administration’s recent decision to revamp the MMS by splitting its regulator function from its other role of collecting tax revenue from the oil companies it was supposed to be regulating.
After noting that the safety record of U.S. offshore drilling “compares unfavorably” to that of other nations, the WSJ observed that the key focus of the MMS was not safety enforcement, but rather maximizing oil production from which the government took a share of the profits. Hopefully that built-in and glaring, but heretofore largely unnoticed, contradiction between the government as a regulator and as a partner in oil profits will now be ended.
So, too, the illusion, as with the radical deregulation of the financial industry, that unbridled corporate greed can also provide for the common good. Greed needs a timeout with adult supervision for these out-of-control conglomerates messing with every aspect of our lives. But that won’t happen until government regulation of multinational corporations is made respectable once again with adequately funded agencies pursuing an uncompromised public interest agenda.
AP / Gerald Herbert
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig is seen burning on April 21 in the Gulf of Mexico southeast of Venice on Louisiana’s tip.