The slow march of the offshore drilling industry toward the economic and environmental disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was filled with opportunities to avert the crisis, moments when, if someone had merely exerted themselves to a reasonable degree, the catastrophe could have been avoided. Such a moment came during the November 19 hearing by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources into environmental issues related to offshore drilling.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, as a member of the committee, had the right to ask specific, probing, questions of witnesses testifying at the hearing. Those witnesses included David Rainey, the Vice President at BP in charge of the development of offshore drilling of the Gulf of Mexico.
Shaheen, if she had prepared, if she had asked her staff to provide her with a thorough background on BP’s offshore activities in the Gulf of Mexico, could have been incisive. She could have asked about corrupt relationships between the oil industry and the Mineral Management Services, which had already been partially exposed. She could have asked about specific safety and cleanup technology at BP, and how that technology compared to the profoundly insufficient technology the offshore drilling industry had at hand during the recent Timor Sea offshore drilling disaster.
Instead, Shaheen asked general questions that could be responded to with vague answers. Shaheen didn’t seem to have done any work to prepare for the hearing besides reading the testimony of the witnesses. Most crucially, when BP’s witness at the hearing answered on a particularly important topic, Senator Shaheen allowed BP to pull a Palin.
You’ll certainly remember Sarah Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric during the 2008 presidential election. Couric asked Palin for specific information to back up an assertion Palin had made. Palin couldn’t deliver any evidence to support her claims. Couric didn’t give up. She asked Palin again. Then, Palin scuttled off into a rhetorical corner, telling Couric that she’d have to find the information later and get back to her about it then. Because Couric had been persistent in asking Sarah Palin to provide proof for her claims, and had asked sharp follow-up questions, it was made clear to Americans that Palin had no idea what she was talking about, and wasn’t qualified to become Vice President.
In her questioning of BP’s David Rainey, Jeanne Shaheen was in the same kind of position as Katie Couric, but unlike Couric, Shaheen wasn’t adequately prepared. Shaheen didn’t ask follow-up questions. She didn’t demand specific evidence from BP to back up their assertions. She allowed David Rainey to act like Sarah Palin – only he got away with it.
“For both Shell and BP, you pointed out the technological advancements that have been made by both of those companies and the industry, in drilling processes. Are you also working on those same kind of research and development efforts when it comes to cleanup, and how to deal with spills, and challenges like the one that Mr. Amos showed us [the 2009 Timor Sea offshore drilling blowout and prolonged oil spill]?”
“I’m not familiar with the details of the studies, but I do know that BP participates in research studies all over the world on these issues all over the world, so I can get you the details if you’d like me to.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
Here was a Vice President from BP, with authority over his huge company’s offshore substantial drilling operations in our nation’s Gulf of Mexico, claiming at a hearing of the U.S. Senate that he just didn’t bother to study or to bring any information about what BP had done to research how to clean up oil spills effectively. It was an evasive response on an important matter, but Shaheen didn’t push. She didn’t demand answers. She didn’t ask why Rainey had come to the Senate hearing without obviously relevant information. She allowed Rainey to cop out with a promise that he’d provide details later, in private, where follow up questions wouldn’t be possible.
We now know that BP hadn’t done adequate research on how to clean up offshore oil spills. We now know that BP doesn’t have the technology to cope with the scale of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – even though it claimed it did.
We know this now. What if we had known this seven months ago? What if Jeanne Shaheen hadn’t let the matter drop? What if she had demanded answers from David Rainey on November 19?
Senator Shaheen certainly doesn’t bear the majority of the responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Many others failed in their duties of oversight and regulation of the sloppy operations of offshore drilling rigs. However, if Shaheen had cared enough to exercise her right as a United States Senator to scrutinize the oil spill cleanup research BP generically claimed to have conducted, she could have helped to prevent the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Shaheen could have demanded that David Rainey come back to the Senate with specific information about BP’s oil spill cleanup research, during a second hearing at which BP’s claims could be questioned in public. She could have asked tough questions, and exposed BP’s negligent approach to drilling and clean up. The information was available, if Shaheen had merely asked for it, and done more than a skim of the results. Shaheen had the chance to go beyond vague questions about the offshore drilling industry’s practices, into genuine oversight.
However, along with most of her Senate colleagues, Jeanne Shaheen wasn’t feeling inclined to ask hard questions of BP last November. Instead, she did the easy thing. She just let it go. She took BP at its word.