Comment on NRDC’s help in “Cleaning Up BP’s Mess in the Gulf of Mexico”

NRDA session at LSU 09.08.2010 063

NDRDA session at LSU (Image by lsgcp via Flickr)

Do you follow the Natural Resource Defense Council’s “Switchboard” feed on Twitter? A recent one caught my eye: David Pettit’s BlogCleaning Up BP’s Mess in the Gulf of Mexico

How will BP be forced to clean up the mess it caused in the Gulf of Mexico? There is a process created for oil spills by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 called a natural resource damages assessment, or “NRDA,” usually spoken as “nerd-a” by NRDA nerds. There is a good summary of the NRDA process as carried out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) here. The bottom line is that BP will pay to investigate and restore the damage it did.

Petit points out that NRDA assesses the damage done, the restitution needed for those damages, and finally the implementation of restitution. Later on he writes,

One thing notably absent from this process is the opportunity for public participation. The NOAA regulations only require one public meeting, to take comments on the trustees’ proposed restoration plan. This is pretty late in the process. NRDC is working with NOAA and at the grassroots level to have NOAA allow more and meaningful public input into all three stages of the NRDA process. If there is litigation, it is unclear whether NRDC or other groups could become parties to the lawsuit.

I commented on the post.

One thing notably absent from this process is the opportunity for public participation.”

I respectfully disagree.

We are a representative democracy with the right to petition our government. We have representatives, who we petition, who may change the law (and therefore the regulation) in order to meet the will of the people. One has the ability to comment on all of the process at any time one chooses.

The NRDC does not represent the will of the people any more than the NRA does. Each organization has the ability to petition its government to communicate its wishes.

That the NRDA process is closed to public sniping strikes me as a good thing. We elect officials. The administration, in turn, puts competent individuals in charge of government agencies. These agencies contain employees hired for their competence, knowledge, skills, and abilities to see that the regulations have the intended effects of the enabling legislation.

Should the NRDC disagree with the NRDA process, they have the obligation to petition their government to change the legislation, not to moan that they do not have a place at the table to supposedly represent me.

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Letter to UC Berkeley’s “Daily Californian”

Here’s a letter I sent off to the Daily Californian:

On the Daily Californian’s opinion page on July 26, 2010 (Berkeley-BP Deal Only Looks Worse Post-Spill), Miguel Altieri writes, “This Berkeley-BP deal was signed without wide consultation with the faculty and despite warnings from a great number of faculty…”

At the nub of it, his fundamental complaint appears to be the administration’s exclusion of staff from the decision process. Of course he raises a number of other distracting arguments such as excess nitrogen in the gulf caused by fertilizing crops, BP’s poor safety and environmental record, the downside of biofuels, and the fact that the administration accepted lucre from an energy company for research to “find new, more sustainable energy technologies.”

Whether faculty input provides more politically correct donors is arguable and of no concern to me. Rather, my interest is in the subtext of the op-ed: that funding sources affect the research process. Funders can and do try to inflict their biases into studies. Whether the funder is BP or an environmental group, there is always a possibility that the funder will try to influence the findings. I personally know a forester contracted by the Sierra Club to do research regarding the (then) proposed Sequoia National Monument. When preliminary findings did not support the Sierra Club’s preferred results, the project was discontinued. I know another researcher contracted by the National Audubon Society; when his preliminary findings did not support their bias, they confiscated his camera and halted the study.

The faculty, student body, and the university’s administration recognize that the state’s funding of the university’s research needs will only continue to decrease, at least in the near term. Focusing on flaws in funding sources does not solve that problem. Rather, focusing on firewalling research from biases in design, implementation, and results, is a discussion worth having.

Norm Benson
Lower Lake, CA

UPDATE (3 August 2010):

I have been contacted by the Daily Californian. They will “strongly consider publishing” my response. Stay tuned…


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