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Lessons of Gulf Oil Spill Lost On Martin

Martin needs to stop coddling the oil and chemical industries as “customers” and ramp up regulatory oversight and enforcement

[Update 5 : 5/29/10 NY Times: Documents Show Early Worries About Safety of Rig

In the documents, company officials apologized to federal regulators for not having mentioned the type of casing they were using earlier, adding that they had “inadvertently failed” to include it. In the permit request, they did not disclose BP’s own internal concerns about the design of the casing.

Less than 10 minutes after the request was submitted, federal regulators approved the permit.

Update 45/27/10 – Star Ledger editorial – they get it in criticizing the federal MMS, but miss the story that right here in NJ, lax  MMS oversight is Christie policy]

Update 3 – Mike Miller, Atlantic City Press has a good story on the Coast Guard’s spill response plan for the Delaware Bay . The story focuses on risks from shipping oil, so one point I might add are risks at the refineries themselves, which are under-regulated. The Coast Guard is the spill response lead on the water agency and their approach is a refreshing contrast with DEP. The Coast Guard sent about 20 staff to the Gulf to help out and learn hands-on technical lessons to strengthen their programs. In contrast, DEP, a minor support agency for spills, sits in Trenton and issues press releases about virtually zero probability risks of Gulf oil hitting NJ beaches, all while cutting resources and weakening important land side regulatory programs at the refinery and chemical facilities. Recall that a BP Texas oil refinery had a major fatal explosion and fire in 2005. Those risks obviously impact the water and are managed by DEP.]

Update 2: Philly InquirerN.J. monitors spill, prepares action plan

“Let’s just say I’m flabbergasted by the irony,” said Wolfe, a former DEP employee and now a frequent critic.

He said Gov. Christie’s current policies, including more self-regulation of industry, “are exactly the kind of problem that caused the oil spill to begin with.”

“There are so many issues that it masks,” he added. “It leads to the appearance that the department is actively engaged and has the staff resources and leadership to respond. None of that exists.”

[Update 1: keeping it simple: If we had a functioning press corps (instead of stenographers that regurgitate DEP press releases), here are the kinds of questions for DEP Commissioner Martin that would have been prompted by today’s DEP press release:

1. You have spoken of the need to change DEP culture and treat regulated industries as “customers“. The federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) has a culture that views BP Oil as a “customer”. Do you still think DEP should view regulated industries as “customers”?

2. You have criticized DEP “red tape” and emphasized the need for waivers from environmental requirements to provide flexibility and promote economic development. You have made it a priority to streamline and expedite DEP environmental reviews. The MMS granted BP oil drilling wiavers from NEPA and expedited environmental reviews. In light of MMS policies, do you still stand by those policies and priorities?

3. You have said that DEP should play a “major role in economic development” The MMS viewed their role as promoting the oil and gas industry’s production. Do you still believe that DEP should promote economic development?

4. You have enacted a new Department-wide policy based on cost benefit analysis (CBA). The MMS oil drilling regulations are heavily influenced by CBA. Do you stand by a policy to place greater emphasis on CBA in DEP decision-making?

5. Executieve Order #2 requires adoption of federal standards. The Red Tape Report recommends that 15 DEP rules be reconsidered to be consistent with federal standards. You abandoned a DEP state drinking water standard for perchlorate pending federal EPA recommendations. Federal standards and federal oversight obviously were inadequate in protecting the gulf region. Do you still support a policy to make NJ standards consistent with federal minimums?

6. You supported the Corzine administration’s privatized toxic site cleanup law that greatly reduced DEP oversight and provided even more control by industry. Given the failure of BP self regulation and lax oversight, do you still support more private control and less DEP oversight of pollution risks?]

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin today issued an over the top press release touting his efforts.

The spin and huge ironies force me to call BS on it all – while Martin hypes a low probability hypothetical risk from the Gulf, his policy increases significant real risks in his own backyard:

“The probability is fairly close to zero, but it’s not zero,” said Josh Kohut, an assistant professor at the Rutgers Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory. (link)


IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Contact: Lawrence Ragonese
(609) 292-2994
May 25, 2010
Lawrence Hajna (609) 984-1795

(10/P47)TRENTON — While it is improbable the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana will have any effect on the Jersey Shore or the State’s fishing industry this summer, the Department of Environmental Protection is not taking any chances. Commissioner Bob Martin today announced formation of a special Gulf Spill Team to closely monitor the situation, to create a unique scientific model of the likely path of the contaminated waters, and to develop a plan of action if the oil should reach New Jersey.  …

Scientists have told the DEP it is not likely the oil will reach New Jersey beaches, making it clear that for the oil slick to hit the Jersey coast, “it would require a sequence of unlikely events.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been the lead agency in dealing with the situation nationally, providing daily briefings to New Jersey and other states that could be affected by the spill. But Commissioner Martin has directed the special Gulf Spill Team to create a unique model of the potential course of the oil for New Jersey.

We want to gather the best scientific data available to help guide us,” said Commissioner Martin. “We have to be fully prepared to protect the interests and residents of this state. But we expect, at this point, that our beaches will be open and we’ll have a great summer season in New Jersey.”

Martin’s press release both exaggerated the threat (in conflict with scientific advice) and created a misleading appearance of aggressive regulatory oversight by DEP at NJ facilities and in oil/chemical accident spill prevention and response.

Worse, the press statement has at least 3 glaring conflicts with Martin’s own policy:

1) Need for precaution and strict environmental regulations

If nothing else, the Gulf oil spill shines a bright light on what happens when lax regulation, cozy relationships between regulators and industry, and an emphasis on cutting costs and maximizing economic production prevails.

Taken together, this is an industry dominated and economically driven culture.

It represents the opposite of a precautionary policy (e.g. first do no harm – when in doubt, err on the side of safety) and strong regulatory culture, which views regulated industry as an adversary, not a “customer”.

Governor Christie and Commissioner Martin have pushed exactly the same policy agenda and culture that created the BP oil blowout. Today’s press release does nothing to alter that reality.

The DEP Transition Report called for DEP “to do less with less“. From then on, it only got worse.

On his first day in office, the Governor issued a series of Executive Orders that elevated cost benefit analysis to at least the equivalent of environmental and health protection. It also put industry in the driver’s seat to block regulations they oppose as too costly or burdensome.

Lt. Governor Gudagno’s “Red Tape Review Report” and Martin targeted DEP and demonized environmental “red tape“. Martin blasted DEP culture and blamed DEP for the economic and budget crises. Martin repeatedly has demanded that DEP culture must change and treat industry – including the oil industry – as customers, not adversaries.

But now, Martin claims he’s not willing “to take any chances“.

If Martin wants to learn the lessons of the Gulf disaster and protect the Jersey Shore and Delaware Bay, he need look no further than his own back yard, which is home to major oil refineries and chemical plants that are accidents waiting to happen. 

Martin surely knows that the BP Gulf oil well blowout was preceed by a deadly 2005 Texas oil refinery fire – the same thing could happen here.

Martin needs to stop coddling the oil and chemical industries as “customers” and ramp up regulatory oversight and enforcement.

2) Need for State role and more stringent state standards than federal minimums.

While under most environmental laws, State’s can act to go beyond federal minimums, but for the most part, federal regulators are in charge in the Gulf.

But the Gulf blowout exposed lax federal regulatory oversight of the oil industry, which has been compounded by a less than aggressive federal spill and cleanup response effort, where BP has been allowed to call the shots.

State and local concerns have ben given short shrift in the BP dominated federal response.

Martin repeatedly has emphasized the need for “waivers” from compliance with strict NJ State regulation to promote economic development (waivers are mandated by EO#2). He has said there is little need for DEP to go beyond federal minimums (adoption of federal standards and federal consistency reviews are mandated by EO#2).

But now, Martin apparently sees the light. Martin now recognizes the need for strong and independent state regulatory power and the need to go beyond federal minimums.

Yet, under an industry supported policy seeking federal consistency so that NJ can be economically competitive, Governor Christie’s Executive Order #2 (as well as pending legislation backed by the Administration) would rollback NJ’s strict regulations in favor of a federal minimums.

3) Role of independent public science

Martin now realizes that an independed scientific capability to support government decisions – free of regulated oil industry bias – is key.

Yet, Martin just appointed an industry dominated and biased Science Advisory Board.

And Martin recently over-rode the recommendatrions of his own scientists in abandoning a proposed drinking water standard for perchlorate.

As I said, the contadictions between Martin’s press release on the gulf spill and his policy are just too great.

As we move forward, which will prevail? the precautionary rhetoric in today’s press release – or the rollback policies in Christie’s Executive Orders and Red Tape Review Report ?

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