BP Set to Drill Again in the Gulf! Or…Wait….

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The Deepwater Horizon in flames, April 2010. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

For a few hours this weekend, you could almost cut the outrage with a knife, as reports leaked out that BP, whose Macondo oil well spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last year, was looking for permission to resume drilling at 10 undersea locations in the Gulf (a complete ban on drilling was eased last fall, but companies have to convince the government they’re living up to new safety standards.) It wasn’t just that they were asking, either: the reports suggested that BP was in talks with U.S. officials.

Whether it was pure fiction, or a trial balloon, or, merely, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today at a press conference in Mexico City,”a misconception,” the U.S. insists there are no talks, no plans, no nothing—or at least, no nothing anyone is willing to talk about. And no wonder, considering that the lawsuits and investigations into the original explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the subsequent spill are still, as policy people love to say, “ongoing.” It might be considered a little bit tone-deaf of the feds to give BP a green light.

But for those who feel cheated out of an outrage fix, there’s more! Transocean Ltd., which operated the Deepwater Horizon, has continued to stonewall the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation — the U.S. government agency responsible for investigating  the causes of the 2010 disaster. Hearings have been scheduled in New Orleans and three Transocean employees have been subpoenaed, but the company has not said if it will produce them or not. That did not go down well with Michael Bromwich, director of the bureau. In a letter Bromwich wrote to Transocean and AP obtained, the director said:

“In my judgment, this is less a legal issue than one of whether Transocean recognizes its moral and corporate responsibility to cooperate with an investigation into the causal factors of the most significant oil spill in United States history. From my perspective, this is what is at stake with the attendance of the Transocean witnesses.”

It gets worse still. Even as Transocean was hiding from the hearings, it announced that it was awarding its executives bonuses, in part because the company had just completed its best year for safety ever. This is not as absurd as it seems: drilling rigs are very dangerous places even when they don’t explode. People are killed on them with some regularity; it just doesn’t make the news. So it is indeed possible for 11 people to have perished in last year’s tragedy and still leave the company less scathed than in any other year.

Salazar made it clear that he wasn’t thrilled with this news either, and to the company’s credit, Transocean official Ihab Toma acknowledged at a hearing of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in New Orleans this morning that the way the bonuses were announced “may have been insensitive.” Just possibly.