Rolling Stone's blockbuster oil spill story

In Tim Dickinson's dissection of the worst environment disaster in U.S. history, everyone gets a piece of the blame


Andrew Leonard
June 9, 2010 10:19PM (UTC)

No one comes out of Tim Dickinson's epic Rolling Stone article, "The Spill, the Scandal and the President," looking good. BP and George W. Bush's complicity in the Gulf oil spill goes without saying. But the Obama administration, too, gets raked over the coals:

Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior:

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Salazar did little to tamp down on the lawlessness at MMS, beyond referring a few employees for criminal prosecution and ending a Bush-era program that allowed oil companies to make their "royalty" payments -- the amount they owe taxpayers for extracting a scarce public resource -- not in cash but in crude. And instead of putting the brakes on new offshore drilling, Salazar immediately throttled it up to record levels. Even though he had scrapped the Bush plan, Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease in the Gulf in his first year alone -- an all-time high. The aggressive leasing came as no surprise, given Salazar's track record. "This guy has a long, long history of promoting offshore oil drilling -- that's his thing," says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "He's got a highly specific soft spot for offshore oil drilling." As a senator, Salazar not only steered passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened 8 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, he even criticized President Bush for not forcing oil companies to develop existing leases faster.

Jane Lubchenko, administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric: Administration

But rather than applying such skepticism to BP's math, the Obama administration has instead attacked scientists who released independent estimates of the spill. When one scientist funded by NOAA released a figure much higher than the government's estimate, he found himself being pressured to retract it by officials at the agency. "Are you sure you want to keep saying this?" they badgered him. Lubchenko, the head of NOAA, even denounced as "misleading" and "premature" reports that scientists aboard the research vessel Pelican had discovered a massive subsea oil plume. Speaking to PBS, she offered a bizarre denial of the obvious. "It's clear that there is something at depth," she said, "but we don't even know that it's oil yet." 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."

President Barack Obama:

[On the day of the spill] the president convened an emergency meeting in the Oval Office with Adm. Thad Allen, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and top White House deputies Rahm Emanuel, Carol Browner and Larry Summers. Obama forcefully instructed his team that the response to the oil spill should be treated as a "number-one priority."

But then the fog of war set in. The following day, the Coast Guard -- relying on assurances from BP -- declared that the spill appeared to be limited to oil that was stored aboard the sunken rig. With a worst-case crisis seemingly averted, Obama checked out, heading off for a long weekend in Asheville, North Carolina, where he and the first lady would stop for ribs at a barbecue joint called 12 Bones Smokehouse before checking into the Grove Park Inn, a golf resort and spa. Asked whether the spill would hamper the president's offshore drilling agenda, spokesman Gibbs made light of the disaster. "I don't honestly think it opens up a whole new series of questions," he said. "I doubt this is the first accident that has happened, and I doubt it will be the last." ...

The president himself was occupied elsewhere. After returning from his vacation, Obama spent Monday, April 26th palling around with Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, congratulating them on their World Series victory. He later took time to chat with the president of Honduras. When he put in a call to Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, it was to talk about tornadoes that had caused damage in that state, with only a brief mention of the oil spill. On Tuesday the 27th, Obama visited a wind-turbine plant in Iowa. Wednesday the 28th, he toured a biofuels refinery in Missouri and talked up financial reform in Quincy, Illinois. He didn't mention the oil spill or the Gulf.

"The Spill, the Scandal and the President" should be read in its entirety. It's the most damning account of the Obama administration's reaction to and responsibility for the BP disaster I've seen so far.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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