Beaufort Sea

Obama finally admits what's been obvious for years: We can't clean up oil spills

Cold comfort for a nation that stands mouth agape at the mind-boggling catastrophe off our southern shore, but today President Obama finally admitted what we and others had been saying for years: America is wholly unprepared for a major oil spill. (And Puget Sound is particularly at risk. More on that in a moment.)

It's just a five-paragraph blurb on The New York Times' website, but in it our nation's highest-ranking civil servant says he made a mistake believing ''the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst case scenarios.'' He went on:

''I was wrong.''

D'ya think? But let's not go too hard on the commander-in-chief, given that every other level of government that's handled the so-called preparations for this massive spill got it wrong as well.

This incredibly dispiriting oil spill continues to leave me a little too slack-jawed to take it on in earnest as a blog topic. But it bears repeating that:

* Skimming oil is largely ineffective, capturing maybe 10 percent of the spilled oil -- if we're lucky.

* Boom is great and useful -- but you can't boom off the whole coast.

* There's a very basic assumption made across the country in planning for the worst-case oil spill: that equipment and workers can be "cascaded in" from other regions of the nation over a period of days to deal with the disaster. 

Post-Deepwater Horizon, it doesn't seem necessary to lay bare the fallacies in this last point.

Despite massive Gulf oil spill, offshore oil drilling starts soon in the Arctic Ocean

If you thought BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill would give the oil companies some pause about offshore drilling, you were sadly mistaken. Armed with a just-issued appellate court ruling against environmentalists and Alaskan native tribes, Shell is pushing briskly ahead with plans to launch exploratory drilling off the north coast of Alaska in matter of weeks.

Yes, just as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill is revealed to be on course to outdo the nation's worst oil spill, Alaska's Exxon Valdez, another oil company wants to open up vast swaths off the the 49th state's coast for drilling. These are the same waters that produce the nation's largest fish catch.

Recall that, as we recounted not long ago, government auditors have established that the U.S. Minerals Management Service scientists were ordered to do a shoddy job analyzing environmental risks of this new drilling campaign in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of the Arctic Ocean.

Recall also -- and we're having trouble understanding why this isn't coming up more right about now -- that it wasn't that long ago that Minerals Management Service officials literally were having sex and snorting cocaine with the oil-company execs their agency was supposed to be regulating. In a novel, this would not be believeable. But it happened.

So now that we've covered the institutional background behind this Alaskan oil-drilling adventure, let's consider it in light of the Gulf spill.  

Federal scientists ordered to do half-baked analysis of Alaskan oil-drilling plans, audit finds

When the Obama administration not long ago went ahead with what could become a major expansion of oil drilling off Alaska's coasts, it did so with full knowledge that its scientists hadn't been able to do a proper environmental review.

That's the upshot from auditors at the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. And it appears that oil companies' pleas to keep some information secret from the scientists also played a role in the half-baked look at environmental threats, a new GAO report states:

"According to regional staff, this (secrecy) practice has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses."

Those analyses are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Although the GAO report just came out, drafts had been available at the Interior Department, which oversees the offshore oil drilling, since sometime before March 1, records show.

The report says some scientists who were sick of being told to do a lousy job on environmental analyses just quit, further complicating the task for doing a first-rate job taking stock of the risks as required under NEPA. Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama admnistration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.