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By Nikolas Kozloff
As a result of the massive BP oil spill in Louisiana, the White House announced a halt in new coastal oil exploration. In view of his sad record, Ken Salazar can hardly be considered the right bureaucrat for a program of such ambition, which would necessarily imply a radical transition: from fossil fuels to alternative energy.
Who is responsible for the great environmental disaster caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? As the country becomes aware of the cyclopean magnitude of the accident, the media are strongly betting on the oil company BP. Yet not enough attention has been paid to the role of Ken Salazar and his dilapidated Department of the Interior, a government entity that, in theory, regulates offshore oil drilling.
With a budget bordering on $ 16 billion, Interior is a major Department that oversees more than 500 million acres of federal land [more than 200 million hectares; T.], including national parks; thus close to a fifth of the surface of the United States. The Department's programs range from the protection of endangered species to the offer of gas and oil leases.
As recently as the end of 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alerted Interior that the frequency of leaks and spills at oil extraction towers was greatly underestimated, and that the threat and impact that a large spill could have on coastal populations was being dangerously neglected. Adding fuel to the fire, the Washington Post is now reporting that Interior last year exempted BP's facilities in the Gulf of Mexico from any analytical scrutiny about their potential environmental impact.
Couldn't that be all but the tip of the iceberg? In view of Salazar's lackluster handling of Interior, it's more than likely. Either way, we'll have more information at upcoming hearings on Capitol Hill. Next week, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works will address the spill, in a hearing that will be inserted into a tight schedule of sessions. Although witnesses have not yet been announced, Salazar is excluded from testifying. The secretary is already in the damage control phase, and has just announced that his Department will institute a commission to review the safety conditions of coastal drilling and other technological matters, as well as to tighten the supervision of the tests to be submitted. industrial equipment.
How could the government allow such a catastrophe to occur? This is the kind of accident one would have expected under the Bush presidency, when the big oil transnationals had an open bar, but not under the Obama administration. In reality, under Bush, the Department of the Interior became such a general lore that it could almost be said to act as an affiliate of the oil industry itself.
According to Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney, who investigated the Department for two years, there was “a culture of substantial abuse and promiscuity” among Minerals Management Service (MMS) staff, dependent of the Department of the Interior. The entity manages billions of dollars of oil and natural gas supplies provided by companies as payments in kind for drilling on federal land.
Devaney found that about a dozen MMS employees used cocaine and drunk to parties with oil company personnel who did business with the agency. In an astonishing and attentive case of willful conflict of interest, MMS employees had sex with industry-provided contacts and accepted gifts from representatives of the oil and gas industry. Because of that, many MMS employees were later either sanctioned or fired.
The cowboy from the Wild West rides into town
Ken Salazar's ascendancy in the Interior was supposed to change the viscous oil nature of the policy practiced in the Department. A man of the West whose family roots go back to the 16th century, Salazar was rarely seen without the boots and hat characteristic of the good cowboy. Obama's appointment of Salazar was celebrated by many groups who had stood up in the fight to protect remote rural areas and pristine watersheds from oil and gas drilling. Before becoming a Democratic Senator from Colorado, Salazar had served as director of the Department of Natural Resources. He had also worked, in his private law firm, as a defender of environmental and water-related causes.
As Secretary of the Interior, Salazar offered cleanliness and transparency. In the hearings of his confirmation in office, he said that there could be certain areas in which the limits set for oil production on the coast could have been exceeded. In fact, in 2006, Salazar voted in favor of the Energy Security Act in the Gulf of Mexico, a law that ended the protections that until then enjoyed the Florida Gulf coast and opened about 4 million hectares of the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to oil and gas drilling.
Believing that Obama had betrayed his campaign promises of change, outraged wildlife advocacy groups addressed a letter to the president to protest Salazar's appointment as Secretary of the Interior. It would have been better, they argued, to appoint a Democratic representative like Raúl Grijalva, from Arizona, who had arch-green credentials.
In a writing published in the New Mexico Independent, ecologist and former oil and gas man Jim O'Donnell observed that “Mr. Salazar is not a visionary. It is not an agent of change. Mr. Salazar has a very interesting and compelling past as a man of the American West. However, from my point of view, you have little interest in protecting biodiversity and even less interest in a fossil fuel free economy. It does not represent the change we need ”.
The man who beat around the bush
“The appropriate words to describe Ken Salazar”, the New York Times opined in January 2009, “are that he is friendly, approachable, that he knows how to listen, that he is a genius man when it comes to seeking compromises, a true expert in the forging agreements ”. But, added the New York daily, "all of this also constitutes Ken Salazar's weak point." What the Department of the Interior fundamentally needs right now, the NYT continued, is someone capable of breaking heads when necessary and firmly drawing the border line against powerful business groups - promoters, ranchers, oil and gas companies, or a misguided auto industry - who have been treating the Department for too long as a public extension of their private interests. ”
In the year and a half that followed his appointment, Salazar did little to disprove the NYT's poor description of his character. On the new Secretary's agenda was the very hot issue of offshore oil drilling. In the final days of the Bush presidency, both Congress and the White House consented to the expiration of a federal ban on coastal oil drilling and affecting the exploration of new open areas along the US coastline. .
Faced with certain politically and morally difficult decisions, Salazar took the party of postponing them. The Secretary declared that new coastal oil drilling would be halted, and in the meantime, the government would open a six-month period of public discussion. Environmentalists were encouraged to some extent to participate, but soon realized that the move had not even been enough to stop the promoters of coastal oil drilling.
In April 2009, Salazar went personally to Alaska, where the fishermen asked him not to go ahead with the oil promotion of the Extracontinental Rig in Bristol Bay. Rebecca Noblin, an Anchorage attorney with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity - a group that once litigated for polar bears to be on the list of threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act - told the Anchorage Press feel disappointed in Salazar, who had not summoned scientists or environmentalists during his visit.
"It is difficult to know what impressions the audience has been able to leave on Secretary Salazar," observed Anchorage Press. "Shortly after Noblin's testimony, he made some concluding remarks indicating that he had heard the comments, but little else," the newspaper added. "In a subsequent meeting with the journalists, just before leaving, he did not commit to anything."
Salazar continued his travels, presiding over another hearing in New Orleans. There he was confronted by some environmental activists who took the microphone to explain that continuing to promote coastal oil exploration would result in serious damage to sensitive ocean ecosystems. Darryl Malk-Wiley of the Sierra Club called for a detailed analytical study of potential leaks and spills, stating that hundreds of millions of gallons of crude had been spilled in recent hurricanes, in part due to aging industry infrastructure. oil and gas.
If Salazar was moved by the ecologist pleas, he did not hint at it. The nation needs a "comprehensive energy plan," he said, although he did not specify whether that would include more oil drilling on US coastlines.
The future of coastal oil exploration
Perhaps the hearings granted here and there have been nothing but a smoke screen for Salazar, a mere public facade. As we now know, Interior ignored NOAA alerts as Salazar quietly concocted with the White House a terrible coastal oil plan. In March of this year, and to the greater derision of environmentalists, Obama finally announced that he would carry out an expansion of oil and gas exploration on the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, among other areas.
As a result of the massive BP oil spill in Louisiana, the White House announced a halt in new coastal oil exploration.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet, Palgrave Macmillan editorial, April 2010.
Translation for www.sinpermiso.info: Miguel de Puñoenrostro - May 2010