06.26.10

Obama's Point Man on Oil Speaks

Lloyd Grove talks with Rep. Ed Markey, one of Capitol Hill’s toughest BP critics, about the dangers of storm season, the prospects for energy reform—and why nuking the spill is a disastrous idea.

“This is, unfortunately, an avoidable tragedy,” Ed Markey tells me, “and it just really makes me very sad and angry.”

He’s talking, of course, about the man-made catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, perpetrated by the oil behemoth formerly known as British Petroleum.  But the Democratic chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee—who calls BP’s management “either grossly incompetent or liars”—sees an opportunity in the debacle as well.

“The only thing worse than a massive oil leak from the bottom of the ocean would be massive radioactive oil leak from the bottom of the ocean.”

“It is my responsibility to work on this as chairman of the subcommittee of oversight,” the Massachusetts congressman says, “but it is also important to present an alternative energy vision at the same time—and that is the Waxman-Markey bill, which, with Speaker Pelosi’s help, we passed through the House last year.”

The controversial legislation—which Markey co-authored with Rep. Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee—hit  a brick wall in the Senate, largely because it contains a carbon tax, known as “cap and trade,” among other politically difficult provisions.   

But post-Deepwater Horizon, Markey claims he’s not tilting at windmills (or whatever alternative energy sources his bill promotes) when he dreams the impossible dream that the Senate will change its mind.

“There is a real chance,” he insists. “I believe, in the long run, that it’s unsustainable that we have 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves and we consume 25 percent of the world’s oil on a daily basis. We’re drilling at ultra-ultra depths without ultra safety. We need to put in place this alternative technology-based energy plan which I hope we can advance this year.”

In the meantime, Markey is the congressional point man on cleaning up BP’s mess and pushing the careless company to do right by its victims.

“BP has been wrong at each stage thus far,” he says. “I think my job is to keep the pressure on so that this is resolved as quickly as possible. My hope is that August will see a completion of the sealing of the well. My hope is also that in August a hurricane does not sweep through the Gulf, taking the oil closer to shore in massive amounts.”

Samuel P. Jacobs: Obama’s New Broken PromiseWith a tropical storm brewing in the Gulf this weekend, potential trouble is looming much sooner than that. And if the spill remains unplugged beyond August, it could get even uglier. Might the tar balls currently soiling the beaches of Pensacola, Florida, even make their way to Markey’s beloved Cape Cod?

“Scientists say it is unlikely,” Markey tells me. “At the same time, the fish that are spawning in the Gulf of Mexico are the same fish that are caught off Georges Bank. So we could see many of the species that our fishermen are depending upon—blue fin tuna, for example—having ingested a toxic stew of oil and chemicals.”

The irony here is that incompetent and mendacious though BP may be—to say nothing of potentially criminal, depending on the outcome of a Justice Department investigation—Markey and everyone else are depending on the company’s expertise, equipment and personnel.

“We are not at their mercy at this point,” he says. “No decisions are being made that does not have government and outside experts participating in the decisions…We are stuck with the fact that we're using BP equipment that was causing the problem and will have to be a part of the solution. What we can ensure is that the incompetence of the past will not be replayed in the near-term future.”

Markey last week released an internal corporate document indicating that (far from BP’s initial rosy-scenario estimates) the exploded Deepwater Horizon rig could pollute the ocean with a daily torrent of 100,000 barrels, or 4.2 million gallons. Last Wednesday matters got worse when one of BP’s underwater robots crashed into a venting system, forcing the removal of the containment cap and allowing oil and gas to gush unchecked from the hole. The containment cap has since been restored.

“I forced BP to put the ‘spill cam’ up so that independent scientists could begin to estimate how large the flow actually is,” Markey says. “The latest official estimates range as high as 60,000 barrels a day. At the end of last week [Coast Guard] Admiral Thad Allen said significant questions about the integrity of the well have arisen that make it difficult to fully understand what is going on down in the depths of the ocean. We don’t know the condition of the well bore. We don’t know what additional challenges we could face as we move into the relief-well phase of the plugging effort. The American public should have full transparency, and the combination of all the misinformation we’ve received led me to release this document.”

As for quick fixes, Markey isn’t sanguine. He scoffs at the recent recommendation of Donald Trump that the gusher can be plugged simply by blowing it up. “Russia had this happen four times, and they bombed it, and it breaks up all the rock and the rock falls in and the leak stops,” Trump told me. “Why aren’t we doing it? What do we have to lose? This stuff is pouring out!”

Markey responds: “I have heard those suggestions. I have also heard suggestions that a small nuclear weapon could be used. To which I say, the only thing worse than a massive oil leak from the bottom of the ocean would be massive radioactive oil leak from the bottom of the ocean.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.