The Federal Government's Role In BP Oil Spill

Guests

Ian Urbina, national correspondent, New York Times
David Schaper, reporter, NPR
Scott Horsley, White House correspondent, NPR

State and local officials complain the Obama administration is too slow in channeling supplies and support to protect the fragile coast. And an Interior Department inspector general report describes the inappropriate behavior of federal regulators overseeing the drilling.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

As a thick blanket of ugly crude flows onto beaches and into sensitive marshes in Louisiana, the president and his administration find themselves in deepening water in Washington. While patience with BP wears thin, the White House continues to rely on the oil giant to stop the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico and clean up the mess it's created. Why, critics ask, when BP has already failed repeatedly?

Meanwhile, state and local officials complain bitterly that the federal government's been too slow to send the equipment needed to contain the gigantic spill and too bureaucratic to quickly approve the alternate methods needed to protect the coastline.

Then there are questions about the scandal-ridden federal agency that might have prevented this disaster in the first place. More and more people ask: Is this Obama's Katrina?

Later in the program, Valerie Harper, nominated for a Tony Award as Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped." But first, is the federal government doing everything it can to contain the damage? Is this Obama's Katrina?

800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to NPR.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we begin with questions about whether the administration did everything it might have on prevention. Ian Urbina of the New York Times joins us from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. IAN URBINA (New York Times): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you reported this morning on a report by the Interior Department's inspector general into MMS, the Minerals Management Service. And let me quote your first sentence: Federal regulators responsible for the oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials several years ago to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil and then turn them over to regulators who later traced over them in pen.

Mr. URBINA: It's pretty striking. It's a fairly damning report. It is a report that focuses on inappropriate and potentially illegal behavior that occurred between 2005 and 2007 mostly, so before this administration came into office. But it does show real problems in the office and the way that the inspectors were handling themselves.

CONAN: And this focuses on the office of the MMS in Lake Charles, Louisiana. We should point out that similar, maybe even more lurid charges emerged earlier about the MMS office in Denver.

Mr. URBINA: That's right. What's different about this report from the prior three inspector general reports is that it's focused on the area that we all are fixating on, namely the Gulf region. And the previous reports focused on the royalties collection arm of the Minerals Agency, and this focused more on the inspectors who handle safety issues and environment issues in the Gulf.

CONAN: And does the inspector general's report mention BP in particular or Transocean, the company that was doing the drilling, or the Deepwater Horizon rig?

Mr. URBINA: It doesn't, because again, all the misbehavior that they were focusing on seems to have stopped around 2008, so before this administration took over. But it finds that a number of inspectors were not only involved in what you cited but also apparent drug use with industry officials. They took free meals and sporting tickets paid for by company officials. And it just seems that there was a culture during those years of misbehavior.

CONAN: Hunting and fishing trips as well. And as you say, this was perceived as general practice, and indeed one of the main concerns that some raise is the revolving door, where inspectors - one inspector was apparently lobbying for a job in one of these companies as he was going out inspecting one of their rigs.

Mr. URBINA: That's right, and at least seven individuals that were the focus of the investigation still work for the agency, but last night, when we presented the story to the Interior Department, they immediately said that they planned on putting those individuals on administrative leave until they could investigate further.

CONAN: Well, that raises a question about - as you say, all these activities that this report speaks to were before this administration. What has this administration done at MMS to change the culture and indeed change the efficacy of this agency in the year or more since Ken Salazar became secretary of the Interior?

Mr. URBINA: A couple things, the biggest of which is it got rid of the Royalties In Kind Program, and that's what you referenced before, the Denver office, and that was the program that concerned collection of payments from the industry for the leasing of drilling rights.

He also put forward a new ethics code for the entire agency, which were fairly strong. And then most recently, after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he divided up the agency in a way that hopes to get rid of the apparent conflict of interest between those who collect money and those who are supposed to police the industry.

CONAN: But after the Deepwater Horizon, some might say too little, too late. There has also been the resignation of Chris Oynes - I don't know if I'm pronouncing that correctly - who was director of the Gulf of Mexico office and the MMS service for about 12 years, until he was promoted to a senior position in Washington in 2007.

Mr. URBINA: That's right. I mean, there was a lot of speculation about that resignation, which occurred earlier this month. It occurred in a way that the department - it was somewhat curious. The Department of Interior wouldn't answer questions as to why he was resigning.

And as you mention, he is the official who was overseeing the Gulf region of this agency at the same time that there were all these things going on, both the misbehavior among staff, as well as problems in the collection of money and the realization that proper collection had not occurred and there had been lots of unpaid money that was owed to the federal government that had never been paid.

CONAN: It's important to remember this agency is the second-most-important source of income to the government other than the IRS.

Mr. URBINA: That's right. There's a lot of money at stake here, and it's one of the reasons why I think the administration has to move pretty carefully in whatever reforms they put forward, but it's also probably one of the reasons why there's so much (technical difficulties) between the industry and the regulators.

CONAN: In retrospect, are people concerned that maybe Secretary Salazar and President Obama could've moved faster?

Mr. URBINA: There are some who are saying that. I think it's a little overstated to cite this as President Obama's Katrina. Much of the misbehavior that's cited in this report and elsewhere predates this administration. But yes, as the disaster sort of draws out longer and longer and wider and wider, I think the stakes get higher and higher for the administration to solve it.

CONAN: Indeed. Ian Urbina, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. URBINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Ian Urbina, national correspondent for the New York Times, where his article, "Inspector General's Inquiry Faults Regulators," ran yesterday, or this morning's paper, actually. We posted a link to our site at NPR.org. He joined us by phone from his office here in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, NPR's David Schaper has been covering the oil spill from the Gulf Coast and joins us now from New Orleans. David, good of you to be with us today.

DAVID SCHAPER: Thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: And this all took on far greater urgency when the oil really started hitting the coast in noticeable quantities, and not that thin sheen but the thick goopy stuff.

SCHAPER: Yeah, the thick goopy stuff is here, and it's infiltrating in a lot of the pristine, very sensitive, very fragile marshlands, barrier islands, estuaries, wetlands. It's just a really devastating thing.

You know, for the last month or so they've known it's out there. All the people who make their living on the water and who live on the water have known that the oil is out there and now it's here. And now seeing it here, seeing the impact, it's really devastating to a lot of folks here.

CONAN: We should note BP is scheduled to make another attempt to plug the gusher tomorrow.

SCHAPER: Right, and you know, that's one of the big things that really sticks with people now. You know, okay, a couple of days, a couple of weeks, now five weeks in and no end in sight. You know, they're seeing the first oil go out in big, black sort of masses that seep into these reeds and grasslands and things, and they're thinking, okay, well, is this it? And they know it's not.

And there's more and more evidence that this stuff is floating out there, and it could be floating out there for not just a couple more weeks, even if they stopped it today - months, and that's really what's unnerving people here, is how long the impact may last.

There are a lot of people who are saying the long-term impact to them and their livelihoods may be much greater than Katrina.

CONAN: And some are asking: Why is the government letting BP continue to run this after repeated failures?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, there's some people who feel that way and feel very strongly that, you know, BP has done enough damage, get them out of the way. And the cold reality is, you know, a lot of these people do -they've lived with the oil and gas industries. They've worked in the oil and gas industries. In fact, the Plaquemines Parish president, Billy Nungesser, he's been one of the most outspoken leaders locally in terms of criticizing both BP and the federal government for their response to this, he used to work for the oil industry and has had a pretty comfortable and decent relationship with them in the past.

They understand what's going on. They understand how complicated this is, at least some folks here do, but there are quite a few others who are just so angry and so fed up that - and every day it seems like the frustration level just burns a little bit more and a little bit deeper.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. We'll start with Robin, Robin calling us from Schenectady in New York.

ROBIN (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I believe that the federal government was supposed to declare this a national disaster and take it away from BP or take control of what BP was doing right away, and the reason they're not doing that is BP can be considered criminally negligent, and so can the government, because they gave BP an exemption from environmental studies under outhouses and hiking trails to put this rig in. And that is why they're dragging their feet.

But they ought to be careful because the federal government can also be sued by these various states for negligence, as I said. So they should just be taking it - taking control.

CONAN: David Schaper, Robin is certainly not alone. By that she's going back to our conversation about MMS, the minerals agency, the federal agency.

SCHAPER: Well, unfortunately, the fact of the matter is, as Commander Thad Allen said yesterday, okay, if not BP, then who? The government really doesn't have the expertise to, you know, cap a spewing oil well 5,000 feet below the surface of the sea.

You know, the government doesn't have all of the resources necessarily to skin oil out of the water and to lay boom and do the necessary things to get the oil out of the water and out of the marshlands. They...

CONAN: David?

SCHAPER: Yeah, and they have to rely on BP, even if they don't want to.

CONAN: Robin, thanks very much for the call. More with David Schaper in just a moment. He's covering the oil spill along the Gulf Coast. We'll also talk about the politics here in Washington a bit later. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

BP said this morning its next attempt to stop up the oil gusher in the Gulf will come tomorrow. Crews will try to fill the open well head with cement and heavy mud that's designed to plug the hole. A fleet of robotic submarines is on hand to help orchestrate the maneuver, known as a top kill, a mile underwater.

Even if BP succeeds there's no way to know whether it will or not millions of gallons of crude oil already flowed into Gulf water. Many in the region and now in Washington wonder why, five weeks later, crude oil continues to spew from the well.

We want to hear from you. Is the federal government doing everything it can to contain the damage? Is this Obama's Katrina? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Here are some emails we have. Eric(ph) in Greensboro, North Carolina: The resources of rescue equipment, crowd control, food and water, other essentials for Katrina relief were within the province of the federal government to offer or withhold. By contrast, the U.S. government doesn't have a stash of oil-well-blowout equipment to draw on. Yes, it can give permission to create berms, but the government isn't in the oil-drilling business. It can only withhold permission and require all damages be compensated.

And this from Beth(ph): The major difference between Katrina and the oil spill is the former was caused by a natural disaster, and the cleanup was, naturally, the government's. The latter was the result of corporate or many corporate snafus, and thus the cleanup is in the businesses and not the government.

We should note that the Corps of Engineers and others responsible for maintaining the levees in New Orleans were later faulted, and many regard Katrina as a manmade disaster, the failure of the levees of course caused initially by the storm but nevertheless that the levees were to blame.

NPR's David Schaper is with us from New Orleans, where he's been covering this, and David, the frustration that you've been reporting on now includes, well, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, talking yesterday about the federal government's failure to send the kind of equipment they need to help skim and vacuum the oil that's available and indeed the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to approve a series of barrier islands they propose to build that would have absorbed some of this oil.

SCHAPER: Yeah, that's a real bone of contention with a lot of people down here, that the state came up with this plan and then forwarded an emergency permit application back I believe May 3rd or 4th to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build what essentially would be new barrier islands.

They're basically just sand berms, almost like a it wouldn't be very high, six feet, maybe, sticking out of the water, but dredging sand out of the Gulf and creating these sand barriers that could then the oil would stop there. It could be cleaned much more easily from the sand than it is out of the marshes. It wouldn't get into the marshes.

You know, it's one of the ideas that oh, yeah, that sounds great, but they've been talking a lot about coastal restoration here for a long, long time, and even before Katrina, and Katrina certainly elevated that discussion here.

But it's not a simple thing as it sounds, you know, getting the dredging equipment there to do it, getting the right type of sand, and there are long-term environmental impacts that the Corps wants to study before they approve something like this where but, you know, three weeks after they submitted the permit application, it's really sticking in the craw of a lot of the local parish leaders, a lot of the local fisherman and indeed Governor Jindal himself...

CONAN: People want to know how could the long-term environmental impact be worse than what we're seeing now?

SCHAPER: Well, that's exactly what they say, and what the Corps the Corps hasn't been very vocal in explaining why it wants to take its time. The only answer really and I've talked to some scientists from some of the environmental groups there. A lot of people have certainly been pushing for a long time for coastal restoration projects to restore the barrier islands that used to protect this coastline.

And they're a little apprehensive about this. They do want something done to restore the coastal areas that have been washed away. I mean, this state has lost an enormous amount of coastline over the last number of years. But it's just not that simple.

There are little currents that could trap the oil underneath. These sand barriers might be somewhat susceptible to very rapid deterioration and erosion and thus the sand that they dredge up from somewhere would be gone in a manner of maybe months or years, depending on when the next hurricane could come through, and then that sand is gone for any long-term project that they wanted to do, and there's just not that much sand out there to rebuild the islands.

CONAN: Is frustration building to the point, David, that you think that if effort by BP tomorrow fails, there is going to be a sharp increase in the pressure on the government in Washington to say enough already, we're taking control?

SCHAPER: Yeah, I do think that we're getting close to a tipping point down here because I've talked to a couple of parish presidents who have said that the state has told them that if they want to go ahead and try to build some not on the grand scale that the state was talking in its plan but build some of their own sand barriers, go ahead and do it. Just, you know, we'll find the money. Go ahead and do it.

If they don't get approval of this plan, they're going to start doing some of these projects, and in fact, there are some little projects already going on with sandbagging efforts to protect some shallower waters and those sorts of things. But, you know, they'll find the dredging equipment, and they'll find the manpower and the money to do it on their own.

CONAN: David Schaper, thanks very much for your time, appreciate it.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: David Schaper, NPR reporter, who has been covering the BP oil spill in the Gulf, joining us by phone from New Orleans.

The oil spill has now become, well, as we mentioned, a political liability. Republicans have taken to calling it Obama's Katrina. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs appeared on CBS TV's "Face the Nation" over the weekend. Bob Schieffer pressed him on that point. Is this President Obama's Katrina?

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I think if you look back at what happened in Katrina, the government wasn't there to respond to what was happening. That, quite frankly, was the problem. I think the difference in this case is we were there immediately. We have been there ever since.

There are thousands of people working even as we speak, Bob, to figure out a way to plug this hole and to deal with the spread of this oil.

CONAN: And joining us here in Studio 3A, NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Always good to have you with us, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

CONAN: And we should point out the AP is reporting President Obama plans to travel back down to Louisiana on Friday, apparently another trip to see if he can present himself as being on top of this situation. But that's getting increasingly difficult.

HORSLEY: This will be his second trip to the region, and the White House has been making that point that Robert Gibbs just made, really from the very early days of this crisis. It was - on the day that the rig sank, there was a high-level meeting in the Oval Office, and I think the failings of the administration are not for lack of attention. But until they get that oil stopped at the source, no one's going to be satisfied with what's going on.

CONAN: And this seems to be getting worse and worse, as the pictures of those marshes get bad, as we see pictures of dead pelicans covered with oil. And this is not going away anytime soon.

HORSLEY: Not at all, and in fact, for a number of weeks, this was really sort of a prospective problem. As long as the oil was out at sea, from a political point of view, it wasn't that damaging, even though we all could see that this was going to be a big problem.

But now that the oil is really in the marshes, and the pictures of the oil-soaked birds are showing up nightly on the television news and daily in the morning newspaper, it really is becoming a political problem.

And the challenge for the Obama and, and your callers and David Schaper have been talking about this, is on the one hand, they want very much to present a picture of an engaged and on-top-of-the-problem...

CONAN: Administration.

HORSLEY: And the fact of the matter is they really are dependent on BP to do what needs to be done in terms of cutting off the oil at the source.

CONAN: And indeed for the cleanup that's going to ensue, and indeed for the containment now.

HORSLEY: Well, the cleanup, the federal government can play a larger role. I mean, there are other entities could play a role in stretching out boom and washing the soiled birds and so forth. But the only people who have the expertise to clamp off this well a mile below the surface of the water are the oil companies, and that's why we've had this back and forth every day with reporters peppering Robert Gibbs and the administration: Who's in charge? And the administration's saying: We're in charge, but it's going to be BP that carries out the operation.

CONAN: And a BP official finally saying yesterday, as their patience wears thin, too: Look, if the government wants to be in charge, they can be in charge. They can take control of it.

HORSLEY: Oh, I'm sure they'd love to hand off that responsibility, but as the Coast Guard Incident Commander Thad Allen said yesterday: If we push BP out of the way, who would we replace them with? And no one's come up with a good answer to that question.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Allison(ph) is on the line with us from Boston.

ALLISON (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ALLISON: I may be oversimplifying this question a bit, but I just don't understand why there doesn't seem to be a good contingency plan, much like there was during Katrina. I don't see putting mud or tires into a gushing oil well to be the best solution, and it clearly isn't.

CONAN: Well, we don't know about that yet because they haven't tried the mud and the cement, which they're going to do tomorrow, but the containment caps, Scott, they didn't work, and they've tried two or three of those. This plug to siphon off some of the oil, well, clearly that may be helping some but nowhere near enough.

HORSLEY: The fact of the matter is the contingency planning really went as far as the blowout preventer clamping off this well when the rig first sank, and that was what everyone was counting on to solve the problem, and when that didn't work, they were sort of starting with a blank slate and saying, okay, what do we do now?

The techniques that they're trying are techniques that they've used on oil wells on land or offshore rigs in shallow water, but they are in sort of uncharted depth here, and everyone I think had grown complacent that the blowout preventer was all that needed to be there. They didn't have a plan B, either, to seal off the well, or the materials needed to contain the oil out at sea.

CONAN: And this is also - thanks very much for the call, Alison, and a good question indeed.

ALISON: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: This has also come up with the question of new wells, new drilling in previously undrilled areas. They just - a few weeks before the disaster, proposed lifting the exclusion ban and, indeed, in the Arctic where at that point you're trying to - if there was a blowout there, how would you get resources to the north coast of Alaska?

HORSLEY: And this is another awkward political facts for the Obama administration. As you say, as part of their effort for a more comprehensive energy and climate bill, they had offered to sort of throw a bone to Republicans and allow an expansion of offshore oil drilling just a few weeks before this. And we have the president himself saying, look, the drilling for oil offshore is not a threat. We haven't had a big spill like that from a drill. The problem is when you are moving oil around in tankers.

CONAN: Tankers, yeah.

HORSLEY: Of course, he's been proven disastrously wrong in that assessment.

CONAN: Here's an email from Matthew(ph) in New Orleans, I think, speaking about our previous guest Ian Urbina from The New York Times. Your guest just gave Obama pass on these problems existing before his administration took office. He was talking about the Minerals Management Service. The same is true though for Bush and mismanagement of the Army Corp of Engineers, which had been neglecting levee-designing construction for decades. The blame-the-Bush-shoulders is for the response. The same is true for Obama. The comparison is a correct one. As a New Orleanian, I'm once again asking myself where is my president? And Scott, that's a lot of - people are asking, where is the leadership here?

HORSLEY: And that's the real hook that the president is on. As I say, they - on the one hand, want to show leadership. The president is going to travel there again. But he's not going to be able to get down a mile below the water and choke off the oil.

CONAN: And you should hope that by the time he gets there, this effort that BP is going to mount tomorrow, the so-called top kill, is going to succeed. They're quoted as saying, "They think 60, 70 percent chance that it will, but they'll keep trying if it doesn't." But the ultimate plan, the relief wells, they're not expected to be done until August.

HORSLEY: Right. And we're already over a month into this incident. And if you think about Katrina, you know, if the the water had kept rising for a month, it would have been a very different picture.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Mike(ph) on the line, Mike with us from Lawrence, Kansas.

MIKE (Caller): Yeah. I'm a former resident of Moss Bluff, Louisiana. I lived there during the oil boom and I had grandparents and family in Pascagoula. And I'm kind of tired of the Republicans trying to influence on this. They're the ones that deregulated the EPA and deregulated the MMA. And it's kind of funny when they always talk states rights about stuff, how they want the federal government to come in now.

And I find it kind of insulting that they call this Katrina. My grandparents spent 20 months in a FEMA trailer in Pascagoula, and my mom was killed indirectly because of Katrina. So I'd just appreciate it if they stop trying to earn political points on this. I thought the Obama administration is doing everything they can, because if they tried to do anything expedient to begin with, they'd be accused of pushing the government power too far. So they have a real thin line to walk. But that's what I have to say.

CONAN: All right, Mike. Thanks very much for call. He raises a good point. I think it was a couple of thousand people died in Katrina, 11 thus far in this disaster, them - those killed in the explosion.

CONAN: Robert Gibbs has been saying from early days, he doesn't think the Katrina comparison is apt. But he says, if you insist on making the comparison, he'll be happy to stack up this government's response against the Bush administration's response in 2005.

Again, there's no question that this administration has been engaged, has been active. Every day, I got a press release detailing the ongoing administration-wide response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But they find themselves, basically powerless up until now, to actually choke off the oil which continues to spew into the Gulf. And all the press releases and all the appearances by the president aren't going to matter unless they're able to solve that problem.

CONAN: Let's go next to Vicky(ph), Vicky with us from Cleveland.

VICKY (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. I feel that the administration is simply responding to the two-thirds of this country that are in favor of Drill, Baby, Drill. And he probably, if there were scientists involved, you know - like the previous administration didn't really believe in science. And I think that now he's finding out that there are more nonscientific people involved in this. And then the second part of my question was - I understand that there were companies and countries that offered to help. However, we refused that help and -because there have been bigger oil spills than this in other parts of the world.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

VICKY: And...

CONAN: Is that part accurate? Has the United States declined the assistance of other countries?

HORSLEY: You know, the Coast Guard Ensign commander said yesterday, he has consulted with all the other oil industry executives to see if they would be doing anything differently and has not had anybody come up and say, look, here's what you ought to be doing that you're not doing, or that BP is not doing. So I don't know if there's a solution out there that hasn't been tapped. Again, this is deep waters and there's just not a lot of experience in trying to choke off a leak like this.

One other element of criticism that the president has been getting from the other side - and the caller speaks to the folks out there who want Drill, Baby, Drill as an energy policy - some like the columnist Tom Friedman have said, the president ought to be ceasing this incident as an opportunity to make the case for an even bigger and bolder push into alternative energies and away from fossil fuels. Remember, of course, that this incident comes on the heels of the deadly coalmine disaster and other, you know, sort of old hydrocarbon energy supply. And there are those who say that this is an opportunity for the administration to really make an even bolder push for energy and climate legislation. We haven't really seen that from White House.

CONAN: The old theory that never let a good crisis go to waste.

HORSLEY: As articulated by the Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, yes.

CONAN: Vicky, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it. And as we look ahead, as we mentioned there is the report from the Associated Press, the president plans to go down there Friday. There is the attempt to - by BP tomorrow, the top kill, injecting mud and then concrete into the wellhead to see if that can put a plug in this disastrous leak.

But the disaster, the political part, that's going to continue for weeks and months.

HORSLEY: Yes, although I think once you've plugged the leak, then at least you can sort of say, all right, we now know exactly what the dimensions of the problem are, and we can go about cleaning it up. Right now, it's a ever-growing problem.

CONAN: Thanks very much. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley with us here in Studio 3A.

Stay with us. Up next, Valerie Harper. She's earned a Tony nomination for her portrayal of the outrageous Tallulah Bankhead, a far cry from Rhoda. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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