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What the Oil-Rig Cook Saw: Corruption, Mostly

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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 Ethics Code, 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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63 Comments

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grybrks134

They should look deep into the payoff scandal especially the consultants , all the under the table money being passed just so a company will use their services whether the equipment is good or not , Most consultants are barely more knowledgable than the tool pusher in most cases the tool pusher knows more about the rig and the operation than the consultant who by some coincidence knew someone who knew someone to get them the job without much downhole experience,I don"t believe they do much background checking on the consultants as far as criminaland drug abuse most never take a urinalise test so there you have it.

August 11 2010 at 8:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
thomasjbresnahan

I lived in LA for several years, what has happened in the Gulf is no different than
than what the chemical companies have been doing onshore for years. Taking advantage of very good, simple people and paying off the politicians to get out of their way. Louisana has some of the worst pollution, ground water contamination and air , in the country. The chemical and oil companies that line the Mississippi River with large production facilities and refineries don't give a rats a#@ about the people or the enviroment. People like Mr.Peterson are good hard working Americans who deserve to be treated with the same respect we would want afforded any American worker. We should defend and praise this man for having the courage to speak up. Weather you believe him or not "he was there." I would take his word over that of the President of BP any day of the week. Support the Ameican Worker.

August 09 2010 at 5:48 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Bud McElhaney

my brother works with a guy, who is married to a girl, whose brother's girlfriend's father, used to work with a guy, who worked on an oil rig, who heard a guy telling a man that another guy had said that one of the other shift guys was doing a payoff to the government. (get the point?). By his own admission the cook is just a step above trailer trash. this isn't news. it's a gossip column.

August 07 2010 at 10:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mosbyjr8

Mr. Peterson is off base when he said that MMS was payed off to ignore the accident that occurred when the pipe crahsed into the living quarters. MMS has nothing to do with that. OSHA or the Coast guard have purview of that. Makes the rest of his recollections suspect.

August 06 2010 at 2:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mosbyjr8's comment
mxoverdriv

Read the article again, MMS was paid to IGNORE the problem with the pipe stack that RESULTED in the stack falling! MMS has regulations that control every single screw on that rig and they are in charge of making sure that every T is crossed and every I is dotted before ANYTHING happens on those rigs...and the MMS is seriously corrupt! Most of these federal inspection groups are and they cannot be held accountable for their actions. We need to privatize inspection teams which would allow anyone guilty of corruption to be fired and prosecuted if necessary.

August 06 2010 at 5:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
punnster

All those BP violations should have put up a big red flag and Obama's MMS should have caught and made corrections before the explosion and spill. They had a year.

August 04 2010 at 10:46 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
Mr. Maximo Most

I spoke to a person involved in the cleanup who had just gone to Grand Isle last week. He said it was booming, with all the hotels packed and restaurants & bars filled to capacity. The water was clean and people were fishing everywhere around. We all agreed that when the response effort ends in a short while the locals will be crying again, but for a different reason as things go back to normal.

August 04 2010 at 6:28 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mr. Maximo Most's comment
cubanirish77

yeah man, great for grand isle. they should be thanking bp for the oil spill. you must live their, that must be awesome for you. cmon man, use your head. if you are a commercial fisherman from grand isle your life is ruined unless you have something to fall back on. which none of them do.

August 05 2010 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jb070272

Can we STOP with this liberal verses conservative stuff! We are all Americans and the world is passing us by as we self-destruct.

We are near the bottom in literacy; our life expectancy is not the best, and our standard of living has decreased over the last TEN YEARS! China is more literate as they produce more engineers, scientist, doctors, and teachers. They are building an infrastructure unmatched in the world while America has wasted three-trillion dollars supporting corrupt governments. We allowed our schools to become embarrassments to what still is the greatest country and economy in the world!

We can not allow corporate America to only focus on cost by shipping jobs over seas. If you want Americans to buy your product you must reciprocate by balancing trade.

Remember this conservatives, independents, and progressives; it matters not the cost of goods if you do not have a job to purchase those goods! Bring manufacturing jobs back home. Our government must level the playing field by not allowing goods into our country where the working conditions, safety, and compensation do not match ours. Additionally, it is illegal for countries to provide financial support to private companies who then sell goods to America below the cost to manufacture those goods. i believe they call that "DUMPING".

August 04 2010 at 3:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gatlaw

I am not sure I agree with the comment about limitations on windmills. I guess that IF we concentrated on that technology as well as other oil free methods of producing electricity we would know what those limitations may be...I do know that the SUN provides more energy in a day than all the oil we consume in a year. Our job should be to maximize what we can capture of that inexhaustible energy. We burn oil to create steam to push electric generators...we can create steam by concentrating sunlight on mirrors that heat water to do the same thing...we can use tides (wave action) to power turbines, we can increase the number of wind powered generators. If demand continues and supplies dwindle won't we have to do that eventually? Let's start now and perhaps in 20 years we'll find that we can make do without (as much) oil...

August 04 2010 at 3:19 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
KSparx

yahal...What exactly does your statement concerning minorities have to do with this article? Why are you bringing race into it?

August 04 2010 at 3:03 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
doodlewhopper12

Why hire minority workers when there are so many majority workers without jobs? I wouldnt.

August 04 2010 at 2:34 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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