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Issue #1459      16 June 2010

Culture & Life

Oil – greed and profit in the Gulf

On that curious panel show The View on Channel Nine the other day the panel were venting their collective spleen on the CEO of BP, who had been appearing in TV commercials reassuring Americans that BP would fix the oil spill that was threatening to ruin the Gulf of Mexico and the people who lived there.

Whoopi Goldberg and her fellow panellists clearly did not trust BP’s boss one inch. “Slimy” was the word they used to describe him.

BP obviously hopes its efforts to plug the oil leak and clean up the environmental damage, less than half-measures though they are, will be enough to prevent any significant action against it by US authorities. Meanwhile it goes on making money from its other US and US-linked enterprises.

Despite BP executives’ oft-repeated assertions before the media and Congressional committees that “we will pay all legitimate claims” (there’s an important caveat if I ever saw one), the fact is that BP’s liability for economic damages – loss of income by tourist businesses, damage to the fishing industry, etc – is presently capped at a trifling US$75 million.

For the record: BP posted a first-quarter profit of US$6 billion just one week after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. Horizon and BP between them have a long history of oil spills and other disasters. BP appears to operate on the well-known capitalist principle that it is cheaper to pay any fines than to spend money on safe working methods.

According to the US group Public Citizen, BP has paid US$550 million in fines, including the two largest fines in the history of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As Prensa Latina notes, “BP seems to particularly enjoy violating the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.”

And why not? As Prensa Latina also notes, MMS, the US Minerals Management Service, “the agency within the Interior Department that oversees offshore drilling, routinely accepted gifts from oil companies and even considered itself a part of the oil industry, rather than part of a governmental regulatory agency”.

With MMS inspectors being flown around in oil company executive jets, it is hardly surprising that Deepwater Horizon was given a regulatory exclusion by MMS, is it? Or that, of 27 new drilling sites, MMS has granted regulatory exemptions to 26? (Boy that 27th must have been a shocker to get knocked back – or perhaps they skimped on the bribe they were prepared to pay.)

Meanwhile, BP is going around to survivors and others eligible for compensation and getting them to sign away their right to sue, presumably on promises of uncontested compensation from BP (and of course an oil company would never renege on a promise, now would it).

BP initially played down the scope of the disaster, claiming only a “few thousand” barrels of oil were spilling into the Gulf every day. In fact it was closer to sixty thousand barrels a day (that’s more than 2.5 million gallons a day).

It has been obvious for years that off-shore oil wells have tremendous potential for causing severe environmental damage. Hence the sense of shock on the part of some US legislators when they discovered that BP had no real clean-up plan.

One of the things that so peeved the panellists on The View was the fact that BP’s most noticeable response to the ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was to run a series of new TV commercials. For the oil company, the explosion and consequent oil leak was clearly a PR problem for which the answer was a TV commercial.

But for most of the US Congress, much of the US media and also much of the US public, this is far more than a mere PR problem. Cuban journalist Elsy Fors Garzon reports that even after BP eventually caps the damaged oil well, “experts say the best cleanup scenario is to recover twenty percent of the spilled oil.

“Millions of gallons of oil will remain in the ocean, ravaging the underwater ecosystem, and 100 miles of Louisiana coastline will never be the same.” Not to mention the adverse environmental effects of the chemical “dispersants” that have been indiscriminately sprayed all over the oil-affected waters.

“The explosion has released tremendous amounts of methane from deep in the ocean, and research shows that methane, when mixed with air, is the most powerful greenhouse gas – 26 times worse than carbon dioxide,” writes Elsy Fors Garzon.

“Here’s the reality of the matter – for as long as off-shore drilling is legal, oil spills will happen. Coastlines will be decimated, oceans destroyed, economies ruined, lives lost.

“Oil companies have little to no incentive to prevent such disasters from happening, and they use their money to buy government regulators’ integrity.”

And it’s no use appealing to the commonsense or humanity of oil company bosses. Like the corporate heads of all giant capitalist enterprises, if they had any humanity they would never rise to the top of such ruthless corporate entities in the first place.

For your capitalist, the lure of profit is very strong. Oil companies, however, make huge profits, and they are an irresistible lure. As the rate of profit climbs, the capitalist is more and more willing to ignore or sacrifice moral principles, family, even the safety of the planet itself.

And that is a fact that we should never forget.  

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