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Remember the Gulf Walrus! One Big Lesson from the BP Oil Spill

Nearly five years ago, BP introduced a flippered mammal Americans never knew we had: the Gulf Walrus! If you don’t know the story, you should, because the tale of the Gulf Walrus tells you everything you need to know about what was wrong with deepwater drilling back in 2010, and worse, still is. 

The story goes like this: After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, leaving 11 workers dead and a gusher of oil billowing a mile under the sea, a watchdog group called the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility unearthed the regional oil spill response plan BP had submitted to the Department of Interior as part of the process to begin drilling. The document was riddled with omissions, errors, and implausible assumptions. There was no plan for a failed “blowout preventer,” no plan for oil reaching the coast, no plan for oil-soaked turtles and birds.  But, BP’s regional plan did pay lip service to such “Sensitive Biological Resources” as “Sea Lions, Seals, Sea Otters [and] Walruses.” The media howled. Congressional hearings were held. And in New Orleans, “Save the Gulf Walrus” t-shirts sold like fried oysters. What had happened, it turned out, was that BP had been so eager to gets its rig in the water, that it had cribbed from an earlier plan intended for Arctic drilling. No one had bothered to change the details, and the Department of Interior was happy to give its rubber stamp of approval. And thus an imaginary, large-flippered, sea mammal was born.

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CPR President Rena Steinzor in the Houston Chronicle: Criminal investigations crucial to making refineries safer

Last Friday marked the 10 year anniversary of the BP Texas City Refinery explosion that killed 15 people and injured 170 others.

In an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle, CPR President Rena Steinzor describes the systemic failures which led to the explosion and the regulatory gaps that remain. She calls for criminal investigations, "everytime refinery operations kill, maim, or threaten public health."

She notes:

BP executive Ross Pillari blamed low-level workers for not "doing their jobs." Yet some of the men stationed at the tower had worked 12-hour shifts for 29 consecutive days, as required by BP policy. The company fired six of them, in effect reinforcing the perception that human error, as opposed to systemic mismanagement, was to blame. This spin was refuted by the evidence.

Several weeks before the explosion, Texas City plant manager Don Parus prepared a PowerPoint containing pictures of men killed in accidents on site and showed it to BP senior executives John Manzoni and Michael Hoffman. Parus had also commissioned a consulting firm to survey employees about safety. It reported that "[w]e have never seen a site where the notion, 'I could die today,' was so real."

Post-explosion reports by the Baker panel, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an internal BP review team, and investigative reporting by ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, ratified these fears.

To read the full piece, click here.

 

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CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin Testifies on Regulation for the House Committee on Small Business

Today, CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin will testify as an expert witness on the regulatory process for a House Committee on Small Business Hearing, "Tangled in Red Tape: New Challenges for Small Manufacturers.

Goodwin's testimony highlights the economic as well as public health and safety benefits of regulations in relation to small businesses. He notes:

Over the past four decades, U.S. regulatory agencies have achieved remarkable success in establishing safeguards that protect people and the environment against unreasonable risks. During the 1960s and 1970s, rivers caught fire, cars exploded on rear impact, workers breathing benzene contracted liver cancer, and chemical haze settled over the industrial zones of the nation's cities and towns. But today, the most visible manifestations of these threats are under control, millions of people have been protected from death and debilitating injury, and environmental degradation has been slowed and even reversed in some cases.

In short, the United States is much better off because of the regulations adopted over the past 40 years. But serious hazards remain, and indeed new ones continue to emerge as new technologies develop and the U.S. economy evolves. Americans would be even better protected if the gaps that leave them and their environment vulnerable to unnecessary risks were closed. To gauge the positive impact of regulation on Americans’ lives, consider:

  • The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates that regulatory benefits exceed regulatory costs by about 8 to 1 for significant regulations.
     
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the regulatory benefit of the Clean Air Act exceeds its costs by a 25-to-1 ratio.

The failure to regulate some hazards related to the workplace, the environment, product safety, food safety, and more, and the failure to enforce existing regulations on such hazards results in thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, and billions of dollars in economic damages every year. Sometimes, the damages are spectacular on a world-wide scale.

The BP Oil Spill caused tens of billions of dollars in damages.3 The Wall Street collapse may have caused trillions. Regulation to prevent catastrophe can be far cheaper, and less painful, than cleaning up damage to lives, property, and the environment later.

To read his full testimony click here.

 

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Will the White House Compel Rich Utilities to Clean Up Giant Coal Ash Pits?

We’ll soon learn the results of White House deliberations over EPA’s long-delayed coal ash rule, one of the Essential 13 regulatory initiatives we’ve called upon President Barack Obama to complete before he leaves office.  Under the terms of a consent decree, EPA is required to issue its new rule by Friday, December 19. As glad as we are to see this phase of the rule’s tortuous odyssey come to a close, we suspect that court, not a victory party, will be the public interest community’s next stop, despite a late-entry exposé aired by 60 Minutes last week. 

In the universe of self-inflicted environmental wounds over the last two decades, any “10 best” list must include the brilliant decision to make operators of coal-fired power plants scrub smokestacks to keep mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead particles out of the air but neglecting to prevent them from picking the bad stuff up off the grate, carting it a short distance, and dumping it into giant pits in the ground.  Utilities generate an astounding 100 million tons of such inky sludge annually.  But because the federal government has never issued minimum requirements for such dumps, and state laws are rarely adequate, these pits have been left to grow wider, deeper, and taller, contaminating drinking water and threatening catastrophic spills.  

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Support CPR this Giving Tuesday

This Giving Tuesday, I hope you'll consider donating to the Center for Progressive Reform. We've had a banner year and are looking forward to many great things in 2015.

Above all, CPR's staff and Member Scholars promote a positive and progressive vision for environmental policy and workers' rights. We need your support to continue that work.

Two days after the midterm elections, we released "Barack Obama's Path to Progress," an Issue Alert laying out an affirmative and politically realistic vision for real progress over the next two years. The Alert identifies 13 essential regulatory actions that the President can and should finish before he leaves office, steps that allow him to save thousands of lives, lock in significant environmental gains, and leave a solid legacy on the regulatory front. Importantly, finalizing these rules is entirely within the province of the Executive Branch, so obstructionism aside, he can get this done.

I hope you've seen the wonderful infographics and blog posts that staff have put together to accompany the Alert. We'll continue to provide regular updates on the Obama Administration's progress on the "Essential 13," and we'll also work with our allies to press the administration into action.

This year we also put forward a positive vision for reforms to state and local laws that would better protect workers' health and safety. Our "Winning Safer Workplaces" manual was a big hit with our allies, and now we're working to help turn the ideas from the manual into reality.

Developing these forward-thinking products is no easy task, but our staff and Member Scholars get them done and still find the time to coordinate advocacy with allies, host webinars, meet with decisionmakers to promote our ideas, write case briefs, and blog with thoughtful and incisive commentary on the latest developments in regulation, environmental policy, and workers' rights.

Your support will help us to continue this great work in 2015. I hope you'll make a donation.

Thanks very much for your support.

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Why I Wrote This Book: Why Not Jail?

I have spent 38 years in Washington, D.C. as a close observer of the regulatory system, specifically the government’s efforts to protect public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. The system’s a mess. Regulatory failure has become so acute that we truly are frozen in a paradox. On one hand, people expect the government to ensure that air and water are clean, workers don’t die on the job for avoidable reasons, food is safe, and drugs are efficacious. On the other, these expectations are trashed with alarming frequency. I wrote this book because I have lost near-term hope of reviving the agencies assigned these crucial tasks in a globalized economy. Instead, I argue that the most viable way to staunch the bleeding is to mount an aggressive, relentless effort to prosecute corporate managers for preventable accidents that take lives, inflict grave injury, and squander irreplaceable natural resources.

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The Real Price of Chicken Nuggets: Obama Administration Turns Its Back on Poultry Processing Workers; Crippled (Literally) by a Thousand Cuts

Only in Washington, D.C. is nothing portrayed as something.  Out in the nation, not so much.  And so it was late last week that the Obama Administration took a victory lap for not making life even more miserable for some of the most abused workers in America. Yup, despite the best efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is supposed to watch out for workers’ well-being, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the life-long booster for corporate agriculture, gave a swift kick in the pants to all those low-wage people of color who make the chicken nuggets and chick filets that now dominate what’s for dinner. 

Up until last Thursday, USDA was claiming loudly to anyone who would listen that it doesn’t “do” worker protection.  Then the agency did a full 180 in the middle of the road, and now claims it has addressed workers’ concerns with the help of its new best friends at OSHA. Those workers are the folks who toil at workplaces so miserable that many states make it a crime to film inside them. 

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CPR's Verchick in Times-Picayune: Governor Jindal, don't sign away our legal claims against BP

Today, Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholar Robert Verchick published an op-ed in New Orleans' Times-Picayune entitled, "Gov. Jindal, don't sign away our legal claims against BP."

The piece notes:

Governor Jindal will probably sign SB469, a bill designed to neutralize the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East's lawsuit against oil and gas companies. But does our governor realize that, if he signs this bill, he may also be killing scores of claims that his own his own state and associated local governments have brought against  BP for the Macondo oil spill?                                                                                       

For, whatever the governor or state lawmakers may believe, that is precisely what SB469 might do.

SB469 clearly lists not only who can bring claims in Louisiana's coastal zone, but what kind of claims they can bring. Notably missing from its list are claims for economic losses and claims for natural resource damages under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) – the very basis for pending claims against BP. 

It continues:

But the state, as well as several parishes, have already brought economic claims under OPA...So have coastal cities...And fire districts...And airports...And school districts...And SLFPAE itself, which presented a claim against BP for more than $79 million, mostly to recover tax revenues it lost because of the oil spill.

These OPA claims are not frivolous or opportunistic. Indeed, Governor Jindal has said for months that one of the reasons he opposed the SLFPAE lawsuit is that he thought it threatened state and local governments’ OPA claims against BP. communities that are bringing these claims were hit hard by the Macondo oil spill. They're trying to recover just some of what they lost.  

For example, in its OPA suit against BP, Jefferson Parish has alleged that it suffered:

1.Ecological damage

2.Damage to the quality of life of its citizens

3.Loss of sales tax revenues, use tax revenues, Parish tax revenues, inventory tax revenues, hotel and motel tax revenues, reverence tax revenues, royalties, rents and fees

4.Increased costs of providing services to the citizens of the Parish of Jefferson

5.Damage to the natural resources of the Parish of Jefferson

6.Increased costs for the monitoring of the health of its citizens and the treatment of physical and emotional problems related to the oil spill

7.Costs for educating and retraining employees

8.Increased promotional costs

9.Increased costs to borrow money

10.Increased costs for debt service

11.Loss of fees for permits and licenses

12.Loss of fines and forfeitures income

13.Increased administrative costs

14.Damages to the reputation and image of claimants in the business and tourism communities

Because SB469 works retroactively, it could undo all of these claims.  Did Governor Jindal know that, when he pushed SB469 in the legislature?

To read the entire piece click here.

Professor Verchick also drafted a memo with fellow CPR Member Scholars and law professors Christine Klein and William Andreen on the consequences of SB469's passage and they urge the Louisiana legislature to vote against the bill.

To read the memo click here.

June 3 update, Jindal Blinks: According to a June 3 story in the Baton Rouge Advocate, Governor Jindal backed off of plans to sign the bill at a news conference called for the purpose:

Jindal had planned to sign SB469 at a news conference Monday afternoon, but he left the bill untouched after Attorney General Buddy Caldwell asked for time to look into a claim it could be used by lawyers for BP to scuttle suits brought for economic damages during the 2010 oil spill. That claim, put forward by law professors, first arose over the weekend.

“We’re not signing the bill today,” Jindal said Monday. “The attorney general asked for some additional time to look at it, and out of an abundance of caution, we’ll give the attorney general time to do that,” he said.

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Conflict Disclosures for Regulatory Science: Slow but Steady Progress at Last

Basic disclosures of conflicts of interest have been required by the top science journals for decades. Yet most regulatory agencies – despite strong urging from a variety of bipartisan sources – have failed to require these disclosures for private research submitted to inform regulatory decisions.  This omission is particularly alarming since, unlike journals, agencies used this research to determine the appropriate standards for protection of public health and welfare.  If anything, one would expect the agencies to apply higher scientific standards and insist on greater transparency for privately submitted research as compared to journal editors.

The failure of agencies to meet these bare minimum standards of science has not gone unnoticed.  Recently, the Administrative Conference of the U.S. recommended that agencies should, where possible, require these basic disclosures of conflicts, including “whether the experimenter or author had the legal right without approval of the sponsor of the research to: design the research; collect the data; interpret the data; and author, publish or otherwise disseminate the resulting report or full dataset.”   See Recommendation #11.  Both the Bipartisan Policy Center (p.42) and the Keystone Center (p.20,24) preceded the ACUS recommendation with similar calls for basic conflict disclosures for private research that informs regulation. An editor of Nature recently called for such disclosures, noting:  

It was the 1976 film All the President’s Men, about the uncovering of the Watergate political scandal by two Washington Post reporters, that popularized the phrase: “Follow the money.” He who pays the piper calls the tune. Science combats the undue influence of commercial interests — or at least tries to — by using a different guideline, illustrated by a popular catchphrase from another film: “Show me the money.” Give us transparency.

Even members of Congress recognize the need for basic conflict disclosures in environmental in reform legislation (see § 4(b)) that is otherwise considered by environmentalists to be far too lax.  

At last, one federal agency has begun to show leadership on this issue.  Last November, in a proposed rule that would set standards for silica exposure, OSHA requested that commenters voluntarily disclose funding sources in the course of submitting their comments.  While this is simply a voluntary request by OSHA (and compliance with this request may prove disappointing), it is still a step in the right direction.  Hopefully other agencies and Congress will follow suit and make the disclosure requirements mandatory for new research submissions that inform public and environmental regulation, holding this regulatory science to at least the minimum standards of the scientific community. 

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EPA Declares BP a 'Responsible Contractor' Makes It Eligible Again for Federal Contracts in the Gulf

A scant five days before the Department of Interior opens a new round of bids for oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, the EPA has blinked, pronouncing BP, the incorrigible corporate scofflaw of the new millennium, once again fit to do business with the government.

To get right to the point, the federal government’s decision that BP has somehow paid its debt and should once again be eligible for federal contracts is a disgrace. Not only does it let BP off the hook, it sends an unmistakable signal to the rest of the energy industry: That no matter how much harm you do, no matter how horrid your safety record, the feds will cut you some slack.

Back in 2012, the agency’s intrepid staff had finally gotten permission to pull the trigger on the company, de-barring it from holding any new U.S. contracts on the grounds that it was not running its business in a “responsible” way. Undoubtedly under pressure by the Cameron government and the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, BP’s most loyal customer, the EPA settled its debarment suit for a sweet little consent decree that will try to improve the company’s sense of ethics by having “independent” auditors come visit once a year. 

To review the grim record: BP, now the third-largest energy company in the world, is the first among the roster of companies that have caused the most memorable industrial fiascos in the post-modern age. 

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