How Walruses Explain Congress's Case Against Big Oil

It's easy to protect wildlife that doesn't actually live in the affected region

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The House Energy and Environment Subcommittee holds a hearing today with the CEOs of the five largest oil companies to discuss drilling safety and regulatory standards in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The issues to be discussed are multiple and complex, but there's one that seems to connect many of them: walruses. BP and other companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico reportedly all submitted emergency response plans that, in addition to being "virtually identical," nearly all reference the safety of walruses.  But that animal does not live in the Gulf of Mexico at all. What does this bizarre detail reveal about big oil and congressional Democrats' mission to reform their practices?

  • Oil Companies Don't Care About Safety  Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard writes, "as the executives testified about their safety and preparation, congressional Democrats pointed out that their companies' plans for a similar disaster were basically 'cookie cutter' copies of BP's spill plan, all prepared by the same group, the Response Group. The plans include an assessment of the impact of a possible spill on walruses (which don't live in the Gulf) and the phone number of an expert who died in 2005 (well before the plans were submitted). 'ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell are as unprepared as BP,' said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). 'The only technology you seem to be relying on is the Xerox machine,' echoed Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)."
  • We Can't Yet Lift Moratorium  The Associated Press' Justin Pritchard writes, "Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar during a Senate hearing Wednesday about findings in the AP's reporting, specifically that BP's response plan included references to walruses and what Barrasso called a minimal discussion about how to stop a worst-case scenario. Considering such obvious problems with plans already on file with the U.S. government, Barrasso wondered whether a six-month federal moratorium on offshore deepwater drilling after the spill should be lifted even that soon."
  • Regulation Not Working  The Financial Times' Kate Mackenzie points out, "Just how badly this reflects on the industry alone is up for debate, of course - the Minerals Management Service presumably approved all those plans.  At pixel time the opening statements were rather bogged down in politics; with Republicans arguing the Gulf oil spill shouldn’t be used to opportunistically push through new regulation or other measures, and turning the focus onto the current administration."
  • Self-Regulation Doesn't Work  Liberal blogger Chris in Paris writes, "Let's just say there was very little reality built into BP's disaster planning. I wonder if Steven Pearlstein is still impressed with BP. Once again, the GOP self-regulation theory is a failure. The Democrats would be wise to start getting a lot more aggressive about flogging this point because it's critical to how this disaster became a full scale disaster."
  • Where Did Walrus Reference Come From?  Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) explains. The report "lists 'Sea Lions, Seals, Sea Otters [and] Walruses' as 'Sensitive Biological Resources' in the Gulf, suggesting that portions were cribbed from previous Arctic exploratory planning."
  • Credit Where It's Due  Science blogger PZ Myers bring the snark. "The walruses in the Gulf of Mexico are all safe. I repeat, the walruses are safe. This part of their plan was executed perfectly. We have to give them credit here."
  • Dems Citing Walruses in Reform Push  Subcommittee chairman Democratic Rep. Ed Markey mentioned the walruses in his opening statement, indicating that this could become a standard attack line for Democrats. "What we found was that these five companies have response plans that are virtually identical. ... The covers of the five response plans are different colors, but the content is ninety percent identical. ... Like BP, three other companies include references to protecting walruses, which have not called the Gulf of Mexico home for 3 million years. Two other plans are such dead ringers for BP’s that they list a phone number for the same long-dead expert."
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