For 15 years, Dan Peterson worked as a cook on oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana. During much of that time Peterson lived on Grand Isle, the barrier island community that has experienced some of the worst damage from the BP spill. Although Peterson retired three years ago, he maintains close ties with his offshore compadres, and has keenly monitored the events of the past 100-plus days.
Peterson did not participate in drilling per se. On a rig, food service personnel are considered a lower caste by those who actually work in oil production. But 18 hours of daily duty in the galley, where all crew members would gather at one time or another, created a dual reality in which Peterson was virtually omnipresent yet also figuratively invisible.
"I saw and heard a lot," he said. "As a cook I was regarded as a retarded derelict and accorded a degree of anonymity, which left me privy to many acts of bribery and extortion not open to public scrutiny. I was on more than one job where I was enlisted to go ashore and pick up a few bottles of Johnnie Walker Black and a fat envelope for someone with MMS."
MMS (the Mineral Management Service) is the federal watchdog agency that grants drilling permits and supervises oil-industry safety. Despite this serious mandate, MMS employees have been widely accused of abdicating such responsibilities and engaging in questionable interactions with oil company employees, including alleged drug use and sexual liaisons. (In response to criticism of MMS performance following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the agency split in two to avoid conflicts of interest in regulating the same companies it conducts business with.)
Peterson said that MMS is routinely "fed graft to ignore safety violations," with serious results. "I was on a rig where a bunch of stacked pipe came crashing through the deck and into the crew's quarters. It missed crushing me by six inches. Without going into all the technical details of a shoddy and rushed welding job on a spud barge," Peterson went on, "this was caused by a problem that MMS had objected to at first. But that objection disappeared when they were paid off."
MMS did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the allegations made in this article. But the MMS EthicsCode, a document dated Jan. 29, 2009, makes clear that such behavior is against the rules: "We strive to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety. . . . Employees shall not solicit or accept a gift or other item of monetary value from any prohibited source or that is given because of the employee's official position. . . . Violation of the ethics laws may . . . result in criminal penalties."
Peterson said he approves of the way President Obama has dealt with MMS, beginning with the forced resignation of MMS chief Elizabeth Birnbaum in May. She was replaced by Michael R. Bromwich, a lawyer who served in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration. Bromwich, whose mandate is "restoring integrity and rigor to the relationship between federal regulatory officials and oil companies," has no prior experience in the oil and gas industry, but is a respected veteran in helping troubled agencies regain stability. The former rig cook also praised Obama's "sense of dignity and character" despite pressure to "rant and rave" over the situation.
At the same time, Peterson -- like many with a connection to the oil industry -- opposes the drilling moratorium. "In my opinion, they should take these rigs and have them inspected, one at a time, by anybody except MMS. If they don't pass muster, then shut 'em down, absolutely," he said. "But don't shut them all down at once, beforehand, to await inspection for who knows how long. That puts so many people out of work."
As an insider, Peterson is contemptuous toward those observers and pundits -- such as political satirist and humorist Bill Maher -- who suggest that all oil-industry employees should simply start new careers. Maher has said, "Sorry, roughnecks, but eventually you're going to have find something else to do -- try building windmills. You know what happens when windmills collapse into the sea? A splash."
"Where are they going to find other jobs?" Peterson responds. "That's ridiculous. There are no other jobs here!" Broad-brush pronouncements such as Maher's -- with its cavalier tone and lack of viable alternatives -- have offended many Louisianans who loathe the oil companies.
Peterson's assessment of the current crisis focuses on the critical issue of caution vs. quotas. "I don't know the mechanics of what happened on the Deepwater Horizon," he says, "but it is crystal clear in my mind why the potential and then later-realized [problem] occurred. It boils down to BP's oxymoronical safety/production bonus plan. If everything went cool while digging a hole, everyone involved would be given a quite large, tax-free check at the end. The code of omerta was of paramount importance, and everyone was either D&D [deaf and dumb] or a cheese-eater" -- a rat who would inevitably be hazed and punished by co-workers. In Peterson's view, however, this dangerous situation was hardly unique: "I've worked on many BP rigs. Their safety efforts are no better or worse than any other company's."
"BP has been leading the Coast Guard around by its nose," Peterson continued. "They have Thad Allen [the retired Coast Guard admiral who is President Obama's point man] on a leash. He acts subservient to them because he's not an oil man. He's a bureaucrat and...won't stand up to them." Plaquemines Parish Billy Nungesser, a very visible and vocal figure during the past 100 days, has called for Allen's resignation.
Peterson's bleak big-picture view of the spill also has a deeply personal component: "I lived in Grand Isle for a while because I fell in love with the breeze coming off the Gulf. I bought a broken-down trailer surrounded by big oak trees. On summer nights I would get on top of my shaky domicile, climb up in those trees and just revel in being there. It was almost a-back-to-the-womb experience.
"Grand Isle is a very insular community," Peterson concluded. "It's distanced by two-hours' drive from any semblance of civilization...But now it's as if it was dead. Grand Isle has become like the town that Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin took over in 'The Wild One.' Since the spill, it causes me great pain to go back there."
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