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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Notes from Underground (& Underwater): The Deregulation Crusade: A Pattern of Ignoring Warnings

Adam Arnold, February 08, 2018

Part 1: Leaks, Spills, & Explosions, On Land & Offshore

The agenda of the current administration puts fossil fuel revenue above health, safety, and science. Tax breaks and public-land giveaways are just parts of this administration’s efforts to increase production of and dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas. Indiscriminate deregulation threatens the safety of consumers, industry workers, and the general public, but perhaps even more disconcerting is the war being waged on the very warning mechanisms that might keep us safe. From scientists to whistleblowers, those who are best positioned to foresee danger and sound the alarm are being ignored – or silenced.

Though the threats posed by fossil fuels and their advocates are many and complex, four energy policy areas exemplify the ways the current administration and several state governments are putting safety last: (1) oil and offshore drilling; (2) pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure; (3) onshore drilling/fracking (natural gas); (4) coal. The first two will be discussed herein, with fracking and coal the subject of a forthcoming post.


Four wobbly legs

The four topic areas act as the legs of a table, holding up our economy via our energy reliance. They all present dangers that will do more than ravage our economy; our dependence on unsustainable and hazardous energy sources will devastate the environment, on which our economy, health, and existence depend.

For each of the four legs there are ongoing examples of ignored warnings, dangerous consequences, and disinterest in facing (or even acknowledging) the threats they pose. Even putting aside the global crisis of anthropogenic climate change (admittedly a naïve thing to do), there are oil spills, blowouts, and rig explosions; pipeline leaks that damage property and threaten arable land and drinking water; fracking, threatening land and water while increasing seismic activity; and coal mining, which not only threatens the health of those who work in the industry and the general public, but also is an economic drain, sustained only by excessive subsidies, outdated ideas and infrastructure, and unsupported arguments.

In each case, warnings have failed to prevent disasters. In each area, because the warnings are increasingly ignored and stifled, the next catastrophe is just one accident away.

On Monday, January 22, 2018, five workers died in a gas rig explosion in Oklahoma – where, prior to taking over the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt was a decidedly pro-fossil-fuel Attorney General, and where regulation of the energy sector seems to be a low priority. The causes of the accident are still being investigated, but initial reports note an uncontrolled release of natural gas, which then ignited. While it is premature to say poor regulation is to blame, it is self-evident that less regulation does not prevent such disasters. And yet less regulation is exactly what the Trump Administration wants.

With so much at risk, and given the ever-more obvious and available alternative of renewable energy, the need for cautious regulation should be a given. Instead, the federal government and many states are trying to remove any obstacles that might slow down the rash, headlong exploitation of non-renewable energy resources. The legs of our energy table are shaky, and those with the power to prevent collapse are instead stacking weights on the table. Rather than help our society move toward sustainability, they are propelling us toward the next disaster.


All pipelines leak

Two recent pipeline leaks illustrate the problems of on- and offshore fossil fuel exploitation. In November, a massive leak from the Keystone Pipeline (a “sister” pipeline to the contentious Keystone XL) took place in South Dakota. One doesn’t need a map to grasp that South Dakota is just south of North Dakota, where protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline proclaimed the threat of such leaks loudly for nearly a year, spanning the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations.

The underwater LLOG Exploration Company oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in October (the subject of a previous GAP blog post) was the result of a break in a subsea pipeline. As the largest oil spill in the Gulf since the 2010 BP-Deepwater Horizon disaster (read about GAP’s environmental and public health investigation into that tragedy here), it serves as a reminder that offshore oil extraction carries its own sets of risks. Like onshore pipelines, offshore leaks and spills often go unnoticed until significant damage is done. But the impacts can be harder to track and easier to deny when they take place at sea; with no private ownership to prove environmental damage, cleanup can be sloppier if it is even done at all.

While these facts alone justify improving regulation of pipelines and offshore drilling, the federal government has done more than downplay the incidents; it has worked toward silencing opposing views and expert warnings while pushing forward relentlessly on its anachronistic fossil fuel crusade.

Neither of these leaks, nor any of the countless others that routinely take place along all pipelines, come as a surprise to experts, including advocates for clean air, clean water, clean soil, public health, and environmental protection. A representative from TransCanada Corporation, the Keystone Pipeline’s owner, stated that the pipeline was shut down “within minutes” of discovering an irregularity, yet potentially over 200,000 gallons spewed into the ground before the leak could be stopped.

With FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) and state agencies approving pipelines (while ignoring warnings, risks, and reason) at an alarming rate, this threat cannot easily be overstated: any given leak could spew tens of thousands of gallons of oil or gas into groundwater, farmland, or populated areas before being cut off. (Giving at least some cause for optimism, FERC is reviewing its approval process, which has green-lit all but two out of around 400 gas pipelines since the last such review in 1999, and recently upheld a New York decision to thwart a pipeline FERC had previously approved, on Clean Water Act grounds.)

The LLOG leak similarly emitted thousands of barrels of oil before it was controlled. Initial estimates from LLOG, as is often the case, were significantly less than later determined. This is reminiscent of the guesswork following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, when estimates put forward by BP consistently ignored the high end of the bell curve. Later determinations suggested the actual volume of that spill was far above the amount BP claimed, or for which BP was ultimately found liable (see here and here, as well as GAP’s 2013 report here).

Spills and leaks are more frequent than predicted or announced by pipeline owners – an argument made by pipeline protesters and supported by experts and facts. Yet even when a large leak like that in South Dakota makes the news days before a decision to approve the Keystone XL’s route through Nebraska, government agencies still lack the fortitude to say “no.” In this case, all the state regulators in Nebraska managed to do was suggest a slightly different route.

Months of protests in North Dakota and in other states where pipelines have been proposed or are in the works have brought ever more attention to the risk posed to farmland and drinking water by the building of new pipelines and the failure to adequately maintain existing ones. Experts, advocates, and landowners have all raised legal questions, largely focusing on the inevitability of harm resulting from pipeline use. Simultaneously, those fighting against pipeline construction are being treated as criminals for their efforts to prevent the unnecessary poisoning of their (and our) environment (see here for a piece in The Intercept that describes this outrageous situation in greater detail).

The LLOG leak also followed clear warnings that the current administration has chosen not to heed. In this case, it is a compound issue of the perils of pipelines and the dangers of drilling. Less than eight years have passed since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig that killed eleven workers, and the subsequent spill of millions of gallons of oil that wrecked the ecosystems of the Gulf and its shores, ruined the local fishing and tourism industries, and poisoned numerous people on shore and involved in the cleanup. In its wake, the hope of improving the outdated and inadequate laws and regulations governing oil spill response has fallen pathetically short.

A comprehensive legislative response has yet to occur – and is unlikely anytime soon, given congressional complicity in pro-fossil-fuel deregulation. Soon after the Deepwater Horizon disaster the House of Representatives passed such measures, which included whistleblower protections for rig workers. That bill died in the Senate.

The Obama Administration attempted to offset congressional failure through safety regulations (see here and here) and, at least briefly, through limiting the number of new permits for drilling in the Gulf and elsewhere. But many necessary improvements to cleanup protocol, including reassessment of the use of the dispersants that worsened the impacts of the BP spill, did not take place. If the hope had been that a Hillary Clinton Administration would have pushed forward on such regulation, the naïveté of that hope has left us all – including residents of the Gulf Shore, Alaskan natives, and workers on the rigs themselves – at risk.

Because, instead of heeding warnings, the tone-deaf and intractable Trump Administration is barreling ahead, so to speak, with its fossil fuel fetish. Instead of putting the horse in front of the cart and establishing more effective safety measures before encouraging more drilling and pipeline construction, the administration – incredibly, but consistent with its anti-regulatory agenda – is pushing to limit protective measures. The development of methods for preventing another Deepwater Horizon disaster has been shelved, and the deputy- (and former acting-) director of the federal agency that oversees pipeline safety is closely associated with a company that profits from oil spill cleanup. The energy, environmental, and ethical priorities of this administration are consistently troubling.

The administration and Congress want more drilling and pipelines, but, if cleanup can be inadequate when, as in the case of the Deepwater Horizon, the need is proclaimed by a massive, deadly explosion, how effective will it be when the leaks and spills are silent, taking place beneath a thousand fathoms of ocean or quietly below vast rural farmlands and waterways? This administration finds regulation troublesome, but how great an effort will be made to minimize the damage from a leak, spill, or explosion when there is no regulatory structure to demand thorough remediation?

And how will we even learn about threats or harm if we silence those who warn us of what is coming or tell us what has happened?


When ignoring the warnings isn’t enough, silence them

If it weren’t bad enough that the administration doesn’t listen to dire warnings, there is an even more worrisome problem of trying to prevent warnings from being sounded in the first place. The suppression of federally employed scientists and their research, as described in a recent GAP Climate Science & Policy Watch blog post, is one clear example. Another is the effort to enact legislation in several states that will silence peaceful protesters trying to prevent the next leaky pipeline from polluting their land.

More subtle but no less dangerous, the federal government is throwing away an opportunity to protect oilrig whistleblowers who might help to prevent the next catastrophic blowout.

Countless safety violations were present on the Deepwater Horizon rig before its deadly explosion created one of the largest environmental disasters in history. Numerous shortcuts were taken to speed up completion or otherwise cut costs on the drilling project (see here for one analysis). A whistleblower could have reported the fatal hazards and saved the lives of those who died in the explosion, and prevented the environmental, economic, and public health catastrophe that lingers along the Gulf Coast today, seven-and-a-half years later. Workers on the rig said afterward that they felt they could not report their concerns for fear of retaliation, because every delay in completing the rig’s work was costing its owners money (see here and here).

In retrospect, if workers on the Deepwater Horizon had been encouraged to report evidence of dangerous mismanagement, one of the worst catastrophes in US history might have been avoided. That retrospective view is supposed to be how we learn from mistakes and avoid making the same ones twice. But the Trump Administration evidently doesn’t do “retrospect.”


“We Told You So” is an unsatisfying retort

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration doesn’t do “foresight,” either. It has waged a war on science, which is at its heart a methodology for making predictions – to understand the likely consequences of our actions. Opinion is not a valid counterargument to scientific data and analysis, and does not lead us to making wiser decisions. Foresight – like good leadership – exists only when the best information and analysis are available, acknowledged, and either accepted or reasonably rebuked.

Despite the efforts to silence or ignore them, the warnings have been there. Experts have long been chiming in, saying that the price of fossil fuel dependence is too great and we must rethink our energy policy. The public has spoken – in protest and in comments within the regulatory process. But, most importantly, experience has shown that the experts are right, the public’s fears are justified, and the longer our leaders race in the wrong direction, the sooner we’ll get to say “we told you so” again.

At least until there’s no one left to speak, or to listen.