Is Florida Gov. Rick Scott poised to let BP and Transocean off the hook for last year's Gulf oil spill as far as Florida is concerned? It sure looks like it.
Do Rick Scott's loyalties lie with the citizens and businesses who have lost so much along the Gulf coast of Florida, or do they lie with the oil companies? His business friendly demeanor seems to suggest the latter, and his actions, or rather his inaction, seem to suggest that he will let time run out on joining a lawsuit against the oil companies as the deadline approaches.
You've probably seen the ads recently claiming that BP has cleaned up and everything is just fine along the Gulf coast, but evidence suggests otherwise for those who are really looking:
BP, which seemed in danger of collapse a year ago, is on the financial rebound. Ken Feinberg, the independent administrator of BP's $20bn compensation fund, says he is close to finishing compensating individuals and businesses who were hurt by the disaster – without even coming close to exhausting the $20bn. He paid out only $3.6bn last year.
The cleanup operations are also winding down, at a cost to BP of about $13bn (it has also pledged $500m to scientific research in the Gulf). The company took out an ad campaign this week to express regrets for the spill, showing a picture of shimmering Gulf waters. It could still be liable for up to $18bn in penalties and fines, however, under a US law that imposes a levy of $4,300 for each barrel of oil. But Feinberg was so upbeat he told reporters the Gulf could see a complete recovery by 2012.
Government scientists have not gone so far. A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) said there was "no basis to conclude that the Gulf recovery will be complete by 2012", and warned that some of the consequences of the spill may not be known for decades. The spokesman went on to note that about 60 miles of the coastline remain oiled. Tar mats continue to wash up on beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. And although Gulf waters have reopened to fishing, many oyster beds were wiped out when state authorities flushed fresh water into the Gulf in the hopes of rolling back the oil. At a public meeting last month in Biloxi, Mississippi, fishermen said they were hauling up nets full of oil with their shrimp.
So how could the disaster possibly be over, asks Joye. "You talk to people who live around the Gulf of Mexico, who live on the coast, who have family members who work on oil rigs. It's not OK down there. The system is not fine. Things are not normal. There are a lot of very strange things going on – the turtles washing up on beaches, dolphins washing up on beaches, the crabs. It is just bizarre. How can that just be random consequence?"
More than 150 dolphins, half of them infants, have washed up since the start of 2011. At least eight were smeared with crude oil that has been traced to BP's well, NOAA said, and 87 sea turtles – all endangered – have been found dead since mid-March.
"To me it makes no sense to think that it is random consequence, but it is kind of maddening because there has been a lot of energy and effort put towards beating the drum of everything is wonderful, everything is going to be fine by 2012," says Joye.
Again, which side does Rick Scott really side with? It would seem to be the oil companies:
Rep. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, the Democratic Caucus policy chair, accused Scott of being too chummy with the company. Earlier this week, Scott stood with a BP senior vice president to herald a company grant of $30 million to promote tourism in seven Gulf coastal counties.
"The governor accepted $30 million which he dedicated to marketing in the Panhandle. Wonderful. We're glad he's doing that," Kriseman said.
But that's peanuts compared with the $1 billion that one attorney insists Florida could recover in a lawsuit, Kriseman said. Kriseman complained that Scott has so far failed to indicate whether he would meet a deadline — the April 20 anniversary of the rig's explosion — to join a federal lawsuit.
"What is he thinking? Who does he represent? Does he represent Floridians or is he more concerned about a foreign corporation like BP," Kriseman said. "It makes no sense. We have to ask this question loud because we are running out of time."
Scott said he's considering all his options.
"I want to make sure litigation is the last resort so we are sitting down with BP, making sure we know what our claims are and using our best efforts to make sure the state is treated fairly without having to file a lawsuit," Scott said.
Not long after he took office in January, Scott dismissed a "dream team" of attorneys and dissolved an oil spill recovery taskforce, both put together by Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist. Scott is working with Attorney General Pam Bondi and his own attorneys to explore all options, Scott spokeswoman Amy Graham said.
Rick Scott seems to have embraced the "just trust us to do the right thing" attitude blatantly displayed by the oil companies since this entire disaster unfolded last April:
Scott told reporters at the event that he saw no need for a lawsuit. "I'm very comfortable that my discussion so far with BP is that they're going to continue to do the right thing," he said.
Tampa lawyer Steve Yerrid questioned that assumption. He spent eight months last year documenting the short- and long-term damage from the blowout for then-gov. Crist but has been rebuffed in his efforts to share it with Scott, he said.
"Imagine someone owed you a million dollars and gave you $30,000 and said 'trust me for the rest.' How would you feel?" Yerrid asked.
"BP has the best legal defense in the world and now Gov. Scott is going to trust them to do the right thing. They should have already done the right thing."
While not always the answer, a lawsuit can be important because it creates pressure for action, Yerrid said. And in this case, Florida has the advantage because the damage and the causes of the damage are so well documented.
I would venture to say we can trust BP and Transocean to do the right thing about as much as we can trust a governor who ran a health care company and bought his way into office while doing his best to defeat a health care bill that would save money and lives while trimming costs from insurance companies. Not so much.
Kriseman and Yerrid aren't the only ones baffled by Scott's lack of action. U. S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) has been fighting for Floridians on the oil spill since it began. She worked with former Gov. Charlie Crist, but when Scott took over, her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Scott has also heard from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat. In a letter on Monday, she urged Scott to join the Transocean lawsuit, saying "Florida needs you to steadfastly fight for the sovereignty claims of the state. Florida taxpayers should not be left on the hook for one dime of BP's damage."
She hasn't received a response, she said.
She had been working with former Gov. Charlie Crist to pursue "any and all causes of action against BP," she said.
After Scott's election when he came to Washington, she said she talked to him about the issue and gave him a packet of information.
"He ensured us he would be just as proactive. He took the packet and thanked me, and I didn't hear anything back," she said. "We've heard nothing about any strategy."
Kriseman also pointed out another reason why he believe Scott may not be eager to join a lawsuit, and it's hardly because of an interest to stand up for those who suffered damages from an oil gusher in the Gulf. It's personal:
Kriseman voiced the same criticism. "Instead of joining the lawsuit at a time when we're in position of negotiating from strength," the governor seems only to want to talk with BP about reparations.
Referring to Scott's CEO experience with health care giant Columbia/HCA, Kriseman suggested that Scott wasn't comfortable "making a claim for a billion (dollars) and suing a big corporation because he's personally experienced it himself and didn't like the feeling of it."
I'm sure those businesses who will be damaged beyond repair from oil washing up on the beaches may feel a little differently about the governor who rode into office claiming he'd be a businessman's best friend.
Running a state like a business and actually "governing one" don't exactly mix.
If Rick Scott hasn't figured that out by now, he's probably in for more than a rude awakening.