It may not be what you think.
As oil soaks the coast of Louisiana, the fingerpointing has begun. Government officials, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and BP, executives are trading accusations. But the blame-sharing leads nowhere. A front-page story in The New York Times points to "the enduring laxity of federal regulation of offshore operations." The current disaster "has shown the government to be almost wholly at the mercy of BP . . . to stop the bleeding well."
Meanwhile, estimates of the size of the disaster keep getting worse. From the 5,000 barrels a day BP claimed and the media widely reported on the first day after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are now moving their estimates up to 25,000 to 80,000 barrels a day, with ten-mile-long plumes of oil spreading deep in the Gulf waters. No one knows for sure how much oil is pouring into the Gulf, but Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said on Good Morning America that there is no doubt it is the worst spill in American history.
Browner "also confirmed that the government is the one in charge, issuing orders to BP with regards to the clean-up," says George Stephanopoulus. But that line is looking pretty thin given not only the government's reliance on BP for technology and equipment to try to stop the leak, but also the history of cravenness by the company and ineffectual enforcement by the feds.
For many years, BP has been breaking the law, cutting corners on safety, causing massive environmental damage, and getting away with it.
Pro-Publica's Abrahm Lustgarten has been reporting on BP wrongdoing for years, first for Fortune Magazine and now for the nonprofit investigative reporting enterprise. Lustgarten points out that the EPA could ban BP from receiving government contracts or drilling in federally controlled oil fields, through a process called "discretionary debarment."
"If this were imposed on BP, it would cancel not only the company's contracts to sell fuel to the military but prohibit BP from leasing or renewing drilling leases on federal land," Lustgarten writes. "In the worst cast, it could also lead to the cancellation of BP's existing federal leases, worth billions of dollars."
For years, the company has been in the EPA's debarment attorneys' crosshairs, but the goverment has so far declined to act. The latest disaster might finally change that.
"Days ago, in an unannounced move, the EPA suspended negotiations with the petroleum giant over whether it would be barred from federal contracts because of the environmental crimes it committed before the spill in the Gulf of Mexico," Lustgarten reports.
Those crimes, which Lustgarten has written about extensively, include:
--a massive explosion in Texas in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 170, in which the company pleaded guilty to felony charges and was fined more than $50 million.
--a leak in Prudhoe Bay that caused 4,800 barrels of oil to leak in Alaska due to what Congress found was company negligence, deliberately ignoring warnings to check the pipeline, and cost-cutting that led to safety violations.
--a case settled with the Justice Department for manipulating propane prices.
The cost-cutting measures and other wrongdoing appear to have boosted profits for BP, and made it the most profitable oil company in the world. They also may have led to the world's greatest environmental disaster.
As the government waits to see if BP's current desperate attempt to "kill" the Deepwater well succeeds in stemming the tide of spilled oil, it should take aggressive action against the company, depriving it of the partnership status that allowed it to run its unsafe Deepwater platform in the first place.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive magazine.