"Scientists like Steiner had urgently tried to alert Obama to the depth of the rot at MMS. "I talked to the transition team," Steiner says. "I told them that MMS was a disaster and needed to be seriously reformed." A top-to-bottom restructuring of MMS didn't require anything more than Ken Salazar's will: The agency only exists by order of the Interior secretary. "He had full authority to change anything he wanted," says Rep. Issa, a longtime critic of MMS. "He didn't use it."
"The company applied the same deadly cost-cutting mentality to its oil rig in the Gulf. BP, it is important to note, is less an oil company than a bank that finances oil exploration; unlike ExxonMobil, which owns most of the equipment it uses to drill, BP contracts out almost everything. That includes the Deepwater Horizon rig that it leased from a firm called Transocean. BP shaved $500,000 off its overhead by deploying a blowout preventer without a remote-control trigger – a fail-safe measure required in many countries but not mandated by MMS, thanks to intense industry lobbying. It opted to use cheap, single-walled piping for the well, and installed only six of the 21 cement spacers recommended by its contractor, Halliburton – decisions that significantly increased the risk of a severe explosion. It also skimped on critical testing that could have shown whether explosive gas was getting into the system as it was being cemented, and began removing mud that protected the well before it was sealed with cement plugs.
As BP was cutting corners aboard the rig, the Obama administration was plotting the greatest expansion of offshore drilling in half a century. In 2008, as prices at the pump neared $5 a gallon, President Bush had lifted an executive moratorium on offshore drilling outside the Gulf that had been implemented by his father following the Exxon Valdez. On the campaign trail, Obama had stressed that offshore drilling "will not make a real dent in current gas prices or meet the long-term challenge of energy independence." But once in office, he bowed to the politics of "drill, baby, drill." Hoping to use oil as a bargaining chip to win votes for climate legislation in Congress, Obama unveiled an aggressive push for new offshore drilling in the Arctic, the Southeastern seaboard and new waters in the Gulf, closer to Florida than ever before. In doing so, he ignored his administration's top experts on ocean science, who warned that the offshore plan dramatically understated the risks of an oil spill and petitioned Salazar to exempt the Arctic from drilling until more scientific studies could be conducted.
Undeterred, Obama and Salazar appeared together at Andrews Air Force Base on March 31st to introduce the plan. The stagecraft was pure Rove in its technicolor militaristic patriotism. The president's podium was set up in front of the cockpit of an F-18, flanked by a massive American flag. "We are not here to do what is easy," Salazar declared. "We are here to do what is right." He insisted that his reforms at MMS were working: "We are making decisions based on sound information and sound science." The president, for his part, praised Salazar as "one of the finest secretaries of Interior we've ever had" and stressed that his administration had studied the drilling plan for more than a year. "This is not a decision that I've made lightly," he said. Two days later, he issued an even more sweeping assurance. "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," the president said. "They are technologically very advanced."
"Instead of seizing the reins, the Obama administration cast itself in a supporting role, insisting that BP was responsible for cleaning up the mess. "When you say the company is responsible and the government has oversight," a reporter asked Gibbs on May 3rd, "does that mean that the government is ultimately in charge of the cleanup?" Gibbs was blunt: "No," he insisted, "the responsible party is BP." In fact, the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan – the federal regulations that lay out the command-and-control responsibilities for cleaning up an oil spill – makes clear that an oil company like BP cannot be left in charge of such a serious disaster. The plan plainly states that the government must "direct all federal, state or private actions" to clean up a spill "where a discharge or threat of discharge poses a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States."
"Scientists were stunned that NOAA, an agency widely respected for its scientific integrity, appeared to have been co-opted by the White House spin machine. "NOAA has actively pushed back on every fact that has ever come out," says one ocean scientist who works with the agency. "They're denying until the facts are so overwhelming, they finally come out and issue an admittance." Others are furious at the agency for criticizing the work of scientists studying the oil plumes rather than leading them. "Why they didn't have vessels there right then and start to gather the scientific data on oil and what the impacts are to different organisms is inexcusable," says a former government marine biologist. "They should have been right on top of that." Only six weeks into the disaster did the agency finally deploy its own research vessel to investigate the plumes."