Covered up in Oil

by Lucas Thomas

This all seems so familiar I thought as I waited for Tony Hayward to arrive. A media circus that includes CNN, ABC, and MSNBC is gathered outside of the doors of the Rayburn House Office Building waiting for the CEO of British Petroleum to give his testimony to congress regarding his company’s embarrassing Gulf Coast oil spill. The reason I’m here is to possibly catch a glimpse of him as he goes by and get it on video.  I knew that nothing would come of this so to take my mind off the trademark heat that comes with a June morning in D.C., I replayed the events of two days ago:

***

“Maybe we need a full time safety center on these rigs,” said Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas), “There was nobody on-board whose job was to make the safe decision.” His words echo from room 2123 of the Rayburn House Office Building of the Capitol of the United States. He’s addressing Rex Tillerson, John Watson, James Mulva, Lamar McKay, and Marvin Odum—the CEO’s of America’s five oil giants (Exxon Mobil, ChevronCorporation, ConocoPhillips, BP America, and Shell respectively). 

My editor gave me the assignment. With the HD camera secured in the bag draped over my shoulders, I jumped on the blue line from Foggy Bottom and got off at Capitol South eight stops later, walked two blocks to the Rayburn Building, and despite a lack of press credentials I was siphoned through the metal detectors and cut loose inside. These five men were summoned by their master, the Federal Government, to testify before a congressional hearing so they could enlighten congress with their knowledge about off-shore drilling. Drilling Down on America’s Energy Future: Safety, Security, Clean Energy was the name of the hearing. All this is in response to the disastrous oil spill from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico two months ago. Big Brother is fuckin’ pissed, and he wants answers.

I was sent out with fellow intern Jaime to cover this for The Washington Independent. My initial emotion is a sense of surrealism. I’m inside the Capitol covering a congressional hearing related to an instance of historical magnitude.  A lot of money was generated by the five men sitting stoically at a table in front of some 40 or 50 politicians. Exxon made 19.3 billion dollars under Tillerson in 2009. Not far behind that, BP generated revenue of 16.8 billion dollars with McKay overseeing operations in America. Odum’s bottom line for Shell was 12.7 billion dollars. Watson came out 10.5 billion dollars on top with Chevron, and a very distant fifth sat Mulva—only able to generate a meager 4.9 billion dollars in profit for ConocoPhillips.

Quasi-stadium seating surrounds the table in a semi-circular manner to the front, left, and right. In the seats are elected officials from most (not all) American states. They sit patiently with their opening statements and prepared questions in hand, observing until their opportunity to speak comes. Each will present an opening statement, maybe four or five minutes long, before yielding the rest of their time back to Henry Waxman, the chairman of the Committee of Energy and Commerce. Behind the men sit the media; behind them two large wooden doors are sealed shut. It’s clear that these gentlemen will be here a while.

The committee’s members share the same initiative, but they don’t share the same temperament. When given the chance to speak some come across as poised, calm, and professional. They acknowledge the reality of safety hazards and seek a practical solution, as evidenced by a methodical series of technical questions, such as: why wasn’t the well casing properly designed? and why the integrity of the cement used to seal the well wasn’t tested before being used. Others are obviously infuriated–with the oil, with big business, with a lack of action from the industry’s leaders to fix the mistake that caused millions of gallons of oil to saturate the Gulf Coast, and cost 11 men their lives. When representatives from regions directly affected by the disaster are given the opportunity to speak, their voices carry the personal resentment and frustration of their constituents. Republican congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana brought a picture of a bird wearing a coat of oil to show the CEOs what toll the leak is taking, and he delivers a scathing opening statement ripping into both BP and the Obama administration for their “incompetent response”.

I understand the significance of this event from my editor’s standpoint and why he sent me here to report on it. Whether or not congress actually gives a shit about the Gulf Coast is irrelevant. The people are pissed and they want accountability, or at least perceived accountability; and what better way than to assemble Big Oil’s most powerful players and grill them on the safety strategies they implement on the off-shore drilling rigs that harvest billions of dollars from the bottom of the ocean each year? They want to make sure that this type of catastrophe doesn’t happen again (at least until their term is expired) and in a way it is the perfect symbolism. America is a gluttonous nation in every aspect. It’s in our blood to indulge. Moderation simply is un-American and nothing exemplifies this notion more than oil. In 2008 Americans spent $900 billion dollars on petroleum. Despite owning only 2% of the world’s oil reserves we consume 25% of the world’s oil—equaling the total of Western Europe and China combined. Yet here we are, bitching and moaning; as soon as a disaster happens as a result of our insatiable appetite, we turn our backs and bite the ten hands that feed us. Such is, and has always been, the American way.

When the political talking heads finish the opening remarks, the CEO’s get the opportunity for their own. Five pre-drafted statements differ in words but all offer the same empty sentiments. The bullshit spews from each mouth about how committed they are to the safety standards of the industry and how they will exhaust all resources in helping the cleanup effort. “For our industry this is a humbling experience,” Watson said. Watson and Tillerson take the allotted time to cover their own asses. In Watson’s remarks he makes note of the “rigorous” drilling and safety procedures, and mentions that within hours of the explosion they were conducting safety inspections on their own rigs. Tillerson references the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and emphasizes the safety regulations the company uses and reiterates that a humbled company has learned its lesson already. Ironically the company hired to cleanup that spill was controlled by none other than British Petroleum, and an investigative commission into the incident revealed that the spill was caused due to a set of priorities that placed profit over safety—the same thing that BP was accused of doing on the Deepwater Horizon.

Oil companies aren’t as conveniently oblivious to disaster situations as BP and Hayward’s side-stepping response would lead you to infer; pre-existing regulations are in place to, theoretically, handle the worst-case scenario. Take Exxon Mobil’s response plan for example; the company has thirteen pre-drafted press releases, all for different situations, and when tragedy strikes all they have to do is choose which of the thirteen best fits the situation. These documents total 40 pages in length. Similar documents published by the company pertaining to resource protection and oil removal are five and nine pages respectively. When added up the total number of pages devoted to actually dealing with the crisis is 14. Exxon is far more concerned about their image in the event of a disaster than the actual ramifications of the disaster itself. In fact, the thoroughness (or lack thereof) of the response plan is noted by a member of the committee who points out that part of Exxon’s plan in the event of a Gulf Coast disaster is to ensure the well-being of the walrus population in the area…a species that doesn’t even inhabit those waters. This idea, that oil companies genuinely don’t give a fuck about anything except revenue, is compounded as the hearings proceed and people such as Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) chastise the oil industry saying its corporations “are above the law, prioritize profits, and ignore safety regulations.” It becomes apparent very soon that while this specific one is on BP, the more important issue is corralling the recklessness of the industry as a whole.

The men generally respond to the criticism much like they would respond to an actual crisis: somebody, presumably their lawyers, has given them a series of maybe five or six pre-determined responses to the questions. They regurgitate these generic responses, changing a word here and a word there each time, until the people asking the questions no longer feel like being mocked. Perhaps nobody gets it worse than McKay and for good reason. He is in charge of BP America. It is pointed out that his annual salary is three times the amount of money that BP devoted to researching the prevention of off-shore drilling spills. The questions when directed at him are more vicious, more personal, and most importantly more exposing of malpractice. One member of the committee blatantly calls for his resignation, creating an awkward moment of suspended formality. Apparently his lawyers didn’t draft a response to that.

As I sit and observe, scratching notes on my notepad, my mind momentarily strays. I can’t resist being caught up in the anger and resentment directed toward these men and their companies. For the first time in my life I was actually agreeing with entities of the Federal Government. Strange indeed; but snap out of it kid. You’re a journalist. Remain objective. Cover the story and report.

That’s the part I am finding to be increasingly difficult. This has been going on for five hours now and what has come of it? Just grown men and women getting pissed off more than they already were when this babbling mess started at 10 AM. This isn’t a story. I will report back to my editor with absolutely nothing. What this amounts to is a giant, very formal, well-dressed bitch session. The men are in front of Congress because they are aware of what it would mean from a PR standpoint if they refused to testify. That is all. They aren’t there to provide help or answers to the government. They will sit here until this hearing has reached its end, and when the two large wooden doors open behind them they will casually leave. From there it’s into the limousine and eventually their private jets, where they will curse the cocksuckers who just interrogated them while unwinding with a glass of their Bowmore Single Malt Scotch.

The real story amidst this political babbling is what transpired before the April 20th explosion: safety precautions were blatantly disregarded in exchange for increased profit, and allegations that prior knowledge of an imminent malfunction existed. To find out if anybody actually knew enough to take action and prevent the loss of eleven lives, follow the money. In the weeks leading up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Goldman Sachs sold 44% of their stock in BP, a percentage that equates to $225 million. Not one to miss the boat on making a quick buck, Hayward himself sold 1/3 the stock he owned in his own company during this same time. All this occurred after a very profitable first quarter for BP in 2010. When the money gets that high, protecting it precedes law and morality. An elite financial corporation like Goldman Sachs does not dump $225 million worth of stock without having done their homework first. In this case it isn’t difficult to believe that unsafe conditions aboard the Deepwater Horizon were well-known.

Most stories carrying global implications have more than two sides. So many people want to make this about BP vs. America or BP vs. Louisiana or BP vs. ____ while simultaneously neglecting to view the larger issue. Greed, money, and power spawned this shitty mess. Concern among the public to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again is genuine, but it’s a naïve sentiment—I question how enthusiastic the outcry would be the moments after these people are asked to abandon the habits and lifestyle that bred this mayhem.

***

Finally he’s here! The limo drives up, and the cameramen take their positions, jockeying with elbows for the perfect position. One man, significantly larger than me, threatens to shove me out of the way if he needs to. “O’yuh?” I ask chuckling, “and why’s that?” He doesn’t merit my question with a response; instead he whines to a nearby security guard. I didn’t hear the exchange but I imagine it went something like this:

Cameraman: “I was there first and now he is trying to steal my spot and he won’t leave! Tell him he has to leave!”

Security Guard: “Alright.”

The guard politely asks me to move and I comply. I know the look he has, it’s the same one my brother and I used to get from my parents when we were six years old, fighting over who got to play video games. He’s annoyed, but I’m confident it isn’t with me.

Most of them have been here since 6 AM, three and a half hours now, waiting to videotape the arrival of a single man. The ten seconds between him stepping out of the limo and into the building were pure madness. People screaming, flashes flashing. A British reporter cries out to his fellow countryman in jest: Mistah Haywid, are you looking forward to this Mistah Haywid? No response. He just walks by in silence with a shit-eating grin that will remain on his face for the next nine hours. After his entrance, the media shuffle in to take their spots behind him. This time I’m not included in that group. I’ve done this once before. For the better part of this day congress will do the same thing they did two days ago.  Unlike the CEOs who testified two days ago, Hayward is the man whom the onus falls on to make things right. He’s the top dog. Congress wants answers and solutions this time around. Unfortunately they won’t get it on this day, because there aren’t any answers to be found in Room 2123.

No, if there is any truth at all to the worst environmental disaster in US history, it’s swirling in a plume somewhere deep in the Gulf of Mexico…soaking, and covered with oil.

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