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Commentary: No walruses were harmed in writing this column

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2010 - The late Mike Royko was the pre-eminent Chicago columnist of his generation. He first wrote for the Daily News. After that afternoon publication fell victim to televised evening news and closed shop, he went to work for the Sun-Times.

When Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, Royko took his trade to the cross-town rival Tribune, commenting with typical candor, "No self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper." So great was his appeal to the city's readership that the Sun-Times swallowed the snub to its publisher and continued to run selections of his old columns while the Trib published his current work. 2 Roykos; no waiting. He wrote for the latter paper until his death in 1997.

As a son of Chicago, he fully appreciated the rough and tumble nature of windy city politics and harbored no misconceptions about the altruistic nature of the enterprise. He referred to the original Mayor Daley as "Boss," called the Board of Aldermen the "Grey Wolves" and once defined an honest politician as one who would "stay bought." It is thus a genuine tragedy that Mike passed away before Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, rose to national prominence last week.

Barton became the consensus choice for the first annual "Mike Royko Integrity in Politics Award" (which I just made up) when he kicked off nationally televised congressional hearings into the oil spill disaster by apologizing to the BP Corp. on behalf of the Gulf of Mexico for interfering with the company's efforts to extract profit from the ocean floor. He was specifically offended by the government's "shakedown" of the multibillion-dollar international conglomerate to the benefit of a few out-of-work fishermen and some oily pelicans.

As horrified party colleagues stared on in gape-jawed wonder, the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee calmly and methodically condemned the White House for using the Office of the Presidency and the authority of the Justice Department to pressure a private business to compensate ordinary Americans whose lives had been ruined by its allegedly reckless drilling practices. The whole thing left him feeling "ashamed."

After a brief recess -- during which someone presumably mentioned that off-year elections were pending and explained that public esteem for BP currently ranks the corporation somewhere between toe nail fungus and rectal cancer on the popularity index -- Barton returned to advise, "... if anything I said this morning has been misconstrued ... I want to apologize for that misconstruction."

I, for one, did not feel misconstructed.

  • Where Barton apologists saw a duly elected congressman mounting a principled defense of due process, I saw a politician with the cajones to stay bought.
  • Where right-wing critics saw a further socialist intrusion into the sacred realm of private enterprise, I saw a chief executive trying to circumvent decades of protracted litigation in favor of swift and sure compensation in the face of devastating loss.
  • And where conservative commentators saw a spirited effort to limit expansive federal power, I saw a refreshingly unabashed display of the naked veniality of modern politics.

Your interpretation, I suppose, depends on your point of view.
While perspectives can be argued, certain basic facts are undeniable. Before BP was granted license to begin the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon project, the firm had to file a site-specific environmental impact prognosis with the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service. This regulatory agency had reportedly been staffed by oil industry cronies during the Bush-Cheney years and said cronies had been good-naturedly left on the payroll during the first 15 months of the current administration.

The impact document was to account for the general hazards of deep-water oil exploration as applied to the specific environment at the actual drill site. Any procrastinating undergrad who's ever had to throw together a last-minute term paper should recognize BP's work.

Among the gulf fauna that BP planned to protect in the event of mishap was the indigenous walrus population. Perhaps because the nearest of these animals inhabit arctic waters several thousand miles north of the area in question, company experts were optimistic about their chances for survival. Life on Mars should be similarly unaffected.

The company defined a "large oil spill" as one that would consist of a total between 1,500 barrels (63,000 U.S. gallons) and 4,600 barrels (193,000 U.S. gallons). When the present crisis began, BP officials estimated the spill rate at 1,000 barrels (42,000 U.S. gallons) daily. That guesstimate has subsequently been adjusted upward slightly to 60,000 barrels. That's an additional 2,478,000 U.S. gallons entering the water--per day. The daily overage is thus nearly 13 times the total spillage anticipated in the original worst case scenario.

Of course, the people who came up with the impact statement numbers work for the same company that on April 6 of this year -- exactly two weeks before the catastrophic explosion -- applied for a "categorical exemption" from provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act because the odds of a serious accident on the Deepwater Horizon rig were judged to be so low.

Currently, two relief wells are being drilled to stanch the deadly flow of crude oil and methane gas into the gulf. These are projected to be completed by mid-August and are seen as the best hopes for a permanent solution.

They are just that: hopes. Skeptics point out that the new wells may not be sufficient to relieve all of the leakage and could, under a doomsday scenario, actually make matters exponentially worse.

While BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward attempts to reclaim his life by yachting off the English coast, I suppose Rep. Barton can take solace in the knowledge that at least the walruses are safe -- for now.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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