Capitol Badgers: The Public Beating Has Not Gone Out of Style

Hey all!  I’m posting another blog from DC, and I’ll be cross posting here and there with some relevant stories.  This post is about my first hand experience observing the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s grilling of the oil execs the other day.  Enjoy!


Though it was my day off, I spent most of my time on the hill watching the Senate in session and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Not much to talk about on the Senate front.  The room was completely empty except for three Senators who made speeches supporting or detracting President Obama’s handling of the BP oil crisis and his speech tonight.  However, on the house side…

Let me start by saying that I didn’t attend the whole hearing.  It was extremely crowded and I was only able to spend an hour watching it.  However, I came in right as the BP Executive in America started his Q & A, so I think I picked the right time.

About half of the hearing was legitimate questions about BP and other oil companies operations (see my previous post for a complete list of who attended).  A good summary of the entire hearing can be found via the NY Times here.  Rep. Dingle (Michigan) asked several questions about BP’s working with the Dept. of Interior staff, technical questions about equipment, etc.  It was also established through a question from Rep. Burgess (TX) that there is no new idea for stopping the spill, and that it will continue for the foreseeable future in its present fashion until relief wells are completed (est. August).  It should also be noted that each of these executives were there voluntarily and were not brought before the committee via subpoena.  But the other half…

Lets just say that it was a highly entertaining hearing at some points, because it seemed that some of the Congressmen were simply out to embarrass the oil Execs.   You can watch the entire thing yourself here (though it’s 4 hours long).  Rep. Markey (Mass) started his questioning by noting that each of the five oil companies had the exact same plan for cleaning up a spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but had simply changed the colors of the front page (all the reports were almost completely identical to each other). There was also a contact listed for a Professor who, though an expert in oil policy, has been deceased for 4 years, and references to handling cleanup involving walruses, which Rep. Markey noted have not inhabited the gulf for 3 million years.  He, Rep. Upton (Mich), Rep. Waxman (Cal), and Rep. Stupak (Mich) all proceeded to pile on, hammering BP and the oil execs on everything from their underestimating of the spill total to accusing the oil execs of all quoting from the same script (which I don’t doubt). It served as a chance for the Congressmen to get out some of their frustration on the people who have put us in this situation, for better or for worse.  In other words, a good old fashioned public beating.

From what I saw, it seems that one of the main goals of the hearing wasn’t necessarily to figure out what to do now that the spill has occured, although that was discussed.  It was in part to let the Reps. rake the oil execs over the coals for things that quite honestly, they could not prevent.  One exec was pushed so far by Rep. Stupak to say, and I quote:

when these things happen, we are not well equipped to handle them

There are risks that go along with drilling for oil and although safe when the proper safety measures are instituted, it is difficult to respond to a crisis of this magnitude simply because we don’t have the resources available.  A point was made that contingency clean up plans were done for spills as large as 200,000 barrels a day, but these same plans were unable to effectively cope with 40,000 barrels a day (the current estimated rate of the leak).  The point is that even with the best planning in the world, the reality is that there is only so much that can be done in a situation like this. Is it a good idea for oil companies to have the resources and materials on hand to deal effectively with a spill like this? Yes.  Is the statistical likelihood of such a spill occurring enough to warrant that kind of investment?  Probably not.  Hence the situation we are in.  So I leave off the question: knowing now what happens when the deep water drilling goes wrong, knowing our capabilities, despite all the safety precautions, is it worth it to continue drilling?

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention.  Of the 7 Congressmen I saw testify, I counted 4 that specifically referenced the oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf.  Nothing like a little provocative imagery to try and get the crowd (or nation in this case) on your side.

Jon Alfuth is coming to you live from DC this summer.


About bluffcityed

Shelby County educator. I've taught in traditional and charter schools. Masters in Public Affairs. Passionate about student-centered education policy and teacher input.
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